After a season in which the Plattsburgh State men’s hockey team struggled early but persevered and won a SUNYAC championship, the Cardinals are preparing for a new season with new challenges, but the same goals.
The 2017-2018 season for PSUC begins at 7 p.m. Saturday with a pre-season exhibition game against Skidmore College at the Ronald B. Stafford Ice Arena.
A recent change in NCAA rules allowed teams to schedule exhibitions against other Division III teams, such as Skidmore. Emery hopes this will be a chance to “get a better read” on his team’s readiness for the new season, particularly in terms of getting the freshmen up to the rapid pace of play that Emery hopes will characterize the team.
The Cards are looking for a better start to the season than last year, in which they accumulated five losses before Christmas, before suffering three more defeats early in the second half of the season. PSUC then put together a 10-game undefeated streak on their way to a SUNYAC Championship.
“We had a year last year where we had a lot of adversity in the beginning,” Emery said. “But I give the team a lot of credit: they fought through it.”
“Losing a couple games by 7-1, 7-5, those kind of woke us up,” senior All-American defenseman Aytron Valente said. “That’s when we turned it around those next ten games. It just clicked at the end when we needed it to.”
Emery believes that the Cards came out from this adversity an improved team.
“I think we became stronger as a team, both character-wise and skill-wise” Emery said. “It showed in the end, going into Oswego against a team that had 10 or 11 seniors and winning a SUNYAC Championship.”
With official competition starting on Oct. 28, the Cards will look to use their exhibition games to start answering questions, most notably about goaltending. After the graduation of Brady Rouleau, and with Josh Davies not returning this season, PSUC now has three goaltenders – sophomore Keller Kowalowski and freshmen Jimmy Poreda and Lawson Fenton – without any previous game time at the collegiate level.
“As our goalie situation goes, our team goes,” Emery said. “They all can step up and push each other, make everyone better, and pull for each other at the same time.”
“I think we’re in a good spot for goaltending,” junior forward Ross Sloan said. “Both freshmen goalies are really talented guys, and we’re really lucky to have both of them. They’ll both get a chance to play, I’m sure. I don’t think that will be a problem for us.”
Beyond the goaltending situation, PSUC is preparing for a season in which they will see a lot of new faces. The two top opponents in the SUNYAC last season, Oswego and Geneseo, graduated senior classes of 10 and 12 players, respectively, including key players such as Stephen Collins and Matt Zawadzki.
“I’m sure they found a way to find some good players,” Valente said. “But we’re excited. They had a bunch of guys that left, we only had three. A big three, but we’re happy that we’ve got a lot of the guys back from last year, and we should do well.”
The number of graduates at other schools does not mean that the team is overconfident about its chances in the conference. The Cards will be taking every game this season seriously.
“I think the SUNYAC is the most competitive league in DIII,” Emery said. “We lost to Brockport twice last year. The bottom has come up in the SUNYAC league, and we can’t afford to take any night off. “
According to Emery, the team’s goal is not just to win the SUNYAC, but to compete for, and win, a National Championship.
“Our goal every season is to win the last game of the year,” Emery said. “But there’s only one team that does that.”
In order to reach that goal, the team will have to work hard in every game to improve their ranking in the event they need to rely on an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
“Just two years ago, we lost by one goal in the Williams game, in which we dominated,” Emery said. “That kept us out of the tournament. Every game, every goal against, is huge.”
As a young team, the Cards will need leadership within the locker room. On the ice, however, Emery’s staff is looking for balance.
“I don’t think we have any superstars on our team,” Emery said. “We’re not looking for anyone to get this many goals or that many goals. We’re looking for guys that work hard, leave it on the ice, and give it everything they have.”
Emery’s philosophy is to “play good solid defense first”, and he was quick to offer one defenseman praise for his work and his mentality.
“We have one All-American returning, and that’s Ayrton Valente,” Emery said. “He is the type of player that wants to be better. He wants to be the best defenseman in college hockey, and with his skills he can do that.”
Both Valente and Sloan, members of this year’s leadership group, are humble about their role in the locker room.
“Everyone in our locker room leads in some way or another,” Sloan said. “I think that’s what makes our team kind of special. As a team, every kind of picks up everyone when they’re down. Everyone’s a leader in their own way.”
That mentality will help as the team pursues its goals this season. Emery said that the biggest things that he expects from his players are “hard work and sacrifice.”
“We’re not asking our players to show up 80 nights a year, like a junior or pro team,” Emery said. “We’re asking our players to show up for 25 nights a year and be extremely focused, and empty the tank every night. If they do that, I think the season will be longer, rather than shorter.”
After Saturday’s exhibition against Skidmore, the Cards will have one more preseason game, Oct. 27 against Cégep André-Laurendeau from Lasalle, Québec, Canada, before the season starts at the Ronald B. Stafford Ice Arena on Oct. 28 against the Kangaroos of SUNY Canton.
Email Nathanael LePage at email@example.com