You Gotta Have Heart
Pioneers Get New Life Under New Coach
by Matthew Conyers/CHN Staff Writer
Senior Corey Laurysen arrived at Sacred Heart’s first meeting of the year much like he had the previous three years — excited and ready for the season to begin.
"Everyone just thought it was the regular first of the year meeting," Two-time captain Laurysen said. "We have a meeting like that every year.
“But [coach Shaun Hannah] was late and he was never late. This was a different meeting entirely.”
In the span of a few short minutes, Hannah announced he was leaving the program after 13 seasons. The decision, a complete surprise for the team and the school, left Sacred Heart without a coach less a month away from the start of the season.
Sacred Heart was in trouble.
"I was shocked,” fifth-year senior Paul Ferraro said. "Our jaws just dropped. You’re thinking ‘What direction is this program going in?’ You got nervous."
Nearly two months later, the Pioneers are no longer in trouble.
Saved by the players and new hire C.J. Marottolo, Sacred Heart is surprising everyone in Atlantic Hockey with a 3-4-2 record after being without a head coach from Sept. 9 to Oct. 8th. For the first month, the pressure was on all the players.
“It was one of these things where we just had to take it upon ourselves," said. "All the seniors stepped up. This was an opportunity to get closer as a team. We had to remember we were all there for a reason."
The Pioneers have gone 4-3-2 after starting the season with an overtime defeat to Rensselaer to put themselves back in the thick of the conference standings. It may be earlier but Scared Heart believes the change may have made all the difference.
“In five to six weeks, we came together as a team,” Ferraro, who has seven assists, said. “We tried to stay together and we’re the closest team I’ve had in my five years here. That’s the biggest story to come through all this.”
With the season on the line, the Sacred Heart seniors quickly gathered together in hopes of saving the season before it even began. The plan was simple: convince the underclassmen that Sacred Heart was still the right place for them.
"We talked to the freshmen right away," Laurysen said. "We had to keep them going. We told them we weren’t throwing in the towel."
As the seniors talked to more and more players, the feeling was universal throughout the team — the players weren’t willing to surrender just yet. Instead, the group bonded more than other team in the last three years according to Laurysen.
"This was good for the culture of Sacred Heart hockey," Laurysen said. "Guys responded well. I think it said a lot about the freshman and sophomores and even the juniors.
“The things a coach would do, we did ourselves. Everyone understood and everyone was on the same page.”
The first three weeks of practice were mostly run by the players as the assistants were off recruiting. Then it was time for the preseason games. Sacred Heart took to the ice in an exhibition against St. Thomas with just one coach on the bench. The Pioneers lost 5-4 but the game was seen as a major building block for a team clearly unsure of its future.
"It was like ‘Here we go,’" said. "Laurysen said. “We went out and played hockey. We had to bite the bullet. It changed the culture.
Four days after the defeat, the players received the news they had all been desperately waiting for. The school had hired a coach.
Laurysen had been part of the process and was excited for a new start.
“Guys came into the first practice with C.J and they were nervous,” Laurysen said. “It felt like a tryout. I had never been part of such an intense week of practice."
Marottolo, a long-time Yale assistant, had finally landed his first hand coaching job. After 13 seasons with the Bulldogs, and seeing someone else get the job over him for head coach there, Marottolo was ready for the chance to lead no matter how precarious the situation.
"The guys were eager and chopping at the bit with a new coach,” Marottolo said. “I saw excitement in their eyes.
“After meeting the players, I could see why it worked prior to me getting there.”
Marottolo spoke with Hannah the day of his resignation and Hannah encouraged him to go for the job. He even gave him the athletic director's number.
“I was very excited, D-I jobs are just hard to get because there are so few of them and there are so many qualified coaches out there,” Marottolo said.
But for Marottolo the school was a perfect. The rink was 25 minutes from his home and the school just 10-15 minutes from his life in North Haven.
The players quickly took to Marottolo and his hands on approach to coaching.
"He was outgoing with all the players," Ferraro said. "He was just an all-around good coach. He’s a players' coach."
Marottolo helped established the mood early on at Sacred Heart with intense first practices where players had to fight for their positions. For the first week, he did all his coaching from the bench as his paperwork was being finalized.
He did all this while still learning most of the players’ names.
“It was actually interesting,” Marottolo said. “I was running practice from the bench with a whistle because of my insurance.”
After the opening defeat, the players knew this season could be an entirely different one than the experts were predicting. The Pioneers went on to beat Union in its second game, 6-5 in overtime.
“We were expected to finished 9th place,” Ferraro said. “C.J. comes in and we beat an ECAC program. He turned this program around.
“We went through a rough period, there has to be a good outcome to this all.”
Dave Jarman (four goals, eight assists) and Nick Johnson (seven goals and four assists) lead the Pioneers on the offense. Sacred Heart is averaging 3.44 goals a game. On defense, goalies Olivier St. Onge (3.35 goals against) and Steven Legatto (4.36) are splitting time in net.
The key for Marottolo was to keep the team focused on the simple stuff; nothing long-term.
“We didn’t go in thinking we had to do this and that,” Marottolo said. “We were building from this weekend on.”
Marottolo also believes in a way the lack of a head coach helped this become better hockey players.
“You just go,” Marottolo said. “You do what you know and you’re off and ruinning.”
Marottolo said he has grown tight with the group and often has the players come to his office to talk about plenty besides hockey.
“I like this team, I like how their approach in practice. There is a lot of character laced into that locker room.”