It’s easy to understand why C.J. Marottolo has been smiling a lot lately. The eighth year head coach of the Sacred Heart hockey team has seen his program take several important steps over the past few months.
After three consecutive seasons where the Pioneers posted six or less wins, the program has won 12, 13 and 13 games the past three seasons. With the product on the ice improving, the program’s stature appears ready to take off in the right direction.
It was recently announced the Pioneers would be moving their home games to the Webster Bank Arena, home to the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers. It’s a five-year partnership between the university and the arena. The program will have a dedicated locker room, athletic training and equipment rooms as well as office space for the coaching staff.
“It’s a great commitment from our university to make the move to Webster Bank to give our student-athletes a facility that makes the whole university proud. Our guys couldn’t be more excited to be playing at Webster Bank,” said Marottolo.
The move to a nicer and bigger facility hasn’t been the only recent win off the ice for the Sacred Heart program. Atlantic Hockey Athletic Directors recently voted to move from 11 to 18 scholarships, the maximum allowed by the NCAA.
“With the new scholarships coming in, it’s a great move for our league,” Marottolo explained.
The increased support has already been paying dividends. Along with the hard work of assistant coaches Joel Beal and Scott McDougall on the recruiting trail, the Pioneers have been able to pluck more talent out of the USHL than it has in the past.
Sunday’s 2-1 triumph over Merrimack didn’t seem to be the upset or shocker that it would have been in the past.
“Our guys really fought hard tonight. They came together. They bent, but didn’t break. I’m proud of how hard our guys competed tonight,” said Marottolo.
“I want to congratulate C.J.’s team. I came into this game thinking they were going to be a good team. They didn’t disappoint. They were the better team tonight,” said Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy.
The Pioneers have upset Hockey East programs before, including a 2013 win at UMass Lowell. But, Sunday was different. The goaltender didn’t steal the show and there was no celebration as if the team had just won the Stanley Cup.
“A win against anybody is good. Every game in college hockey is going to be tooth and nail. It’s great coming up on the road and getting it done. It’s a nice step for our team in this young season,” Marottolo commented after the game.
Sacred Heart had to kill 14 Merrimack penalties, including four instances where they were down two men for a prolonged time.
“Our PK guys deserve a lot of the credit. They were great. They sacrificed. They blocked shots. They had great sticks in lane. When our guys didn’t get it done, [goaltender Brett] Magnus came up big,” Marottolo said.
Despite having to kill 14 penalties to just five power plays of their own, the Pioneers out-shot Merrimack, 28-21 on the afternoon. Marottolo’s team did a good job winning the neutral zone and getting to loose pucks quickly.
“One of our strengths is our speed. When we’re on our game, our transition to offense is a strength of ours,” Marottolo explained. “I thought we did a great job transitioning from defense to offense. Our defensemen had some great gaps. Our forwards were coming back hard. If we have great gaps, we’re going to be able to get pucks going back the other way.”
Senior co-captain Mitch Nylen, a product of Lawrenceville, Ga. and the Brooks School in North Andover, Mass., did as good a job as any SHU defenseman in that regard Sunday.
“He has a letter on his jersey for a reason. He’s our leader back there on defense. He leads as much by example on the ice and by how he creates the culture in our locker room. He listens. He’s very coachable,” said Marottolo.
Sacred Heart returns to action Friday night with an Atlantic Hockey contest at Army before opening its home slate against 2014 NCAA Champion Union College Saturday at 2 p.m.