Embracing the Unusual
C.J. Marottolo Has Led Sacred Heart Through a Strange Season, and He Hopes For More
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
This has been a strange year for Sacred Heart coach C.J. Marottolo.
And now, with his team ready to play in the Atlantic Hockey tournament championship weekend, he is trying to cap off the year by making it a unique one as well.
Sacred Heart, which faces defending champion Air Force in the semifinals Friday at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, has never made the NCAA tournament before. To do so, it would need to defeat an NCAA team from a year ago, then, possible, the hosts, first-place RIT.
This doesn't seem like a tall order when you consider all that the team overcame when the season started.
Former coach Shaun Hannah had seen through program through its entire transition from the MAAC to Atlantic Hockey, into a team that could at least be consistently competitive in the league. But Hannah's brother was tragically killed in an auto accident last summer, and as this season drew closer, Hannah decided he need to step away.
As tragic as that was, it provided Marottolo an opportunity, one that he's been looking for. A long-time loyal Yale assistant, and 1989 graduate of Northeastern, he was passed over for the head coaching job when the legendary Tim Taylor was pushed aside after the 2005-06 season. Ex-Yale goaltender Keith Allain got the job, but Marottolo decided to stay with the program.
"I had known Keith when I was 18-19 years old," said Marottolo, who was instrumental in bringing in the players that have formed the nucleus for the past two great seasons for the Bulldogs. "I watched them play when I was a kid. I worked with him when I was a young coach. We had a relationship. It seemed like the right thing to do (staying). I had a wonderful experience at Yale. I loved the kids we were bringing in that year — (Sean) Backman, (Marc) Arcobello, (Tom) Dignard. ... I think that's only human nature (to be disappointed), but (Allain) gave me an awful lot of responsibility. It was a non-issue."
Head coaching, however, was a goal, like it is with most assistants. Never mind his disappointment at not getting the chance at Yale, and never mind that it was at a more under-the-radar program like Sacred Heart. And never mind that it was three weeks before the start of the season. Marottolo was excited about the chance.
"It was a whirlwind," Marottolo said. "Usually you come in during the summer, get your feet on the ground, meet people on campus. I was right to the rink. I like that, I know hockey, that's what I like to do.
"To me it's all about coaching. I had an opportunity to be a head coach at Sacred Heart. For me, my family, my wife is from this area, my kids are in grammar school here. I did not want to uproot them, they are seccure in their life. I had an opportunity to get a head coaching job without having to move my family, which is a home run.
"As for Atlantic Hockey, I'd followed Sacret Heart because it's in Connecticut; Air Force, Holy Cross, these are good teams with good coaches. I had a lot of respect for the league. I know it doesn't get the print other leagues do, but that was the farthest thing from my mind."
It was an adjustment, however, for both Marottolo and the team. Here, all of a sudden, a new coach was plopped in their lap just as the season was about to start. Sacred Heart started out shakily, 3-9-2 in the first 14 games.
"We were close at certain times, but we were an undisciplined team," Marottolo said. "We were taking too many penalties,- and that's not the recipe for success. We had to work through that as a team and put ourselves in position to win games. They bought in."
In the second half, things turned around, and the team became the hottest Pioneers this side of Colorado, one of the hottest teams in the country. Sacred Heart reeled off a 15-1-2 streak, stopped only by a pair of losses at Air Force to end the regular season.
Along the way, however, some more strangeness was thrown in for good measure. Marottolo came down with Bell's palsy, a temporary paralysis in the face, thought to be caused by inflammation or a virus.
"It was crazy," Marottolo said. "I never heard of it. I woke up one day with an ear infection and a sore throat. We played UConn on that Friday and I didn't go to the game. And the next day, if I felt better, I said I'd drive up (to UConn). My wife wakes me up and says, 'What's wrong with your face?' It was drooped — I tried to drink a glass of water and it spilled. You think it's a stroke. I went to the doctor and they said it's Bell's palsy. It took almost two months to recover. It's practically normal now.
"It was hard to communicate with the guys. At some points it was probably better they didn't understand a word I was saying."
So things are getting back to normal, but Marottolo hopes the strangeness continues, as long as that means doing something no team at Sacred Heart has ever done before.
"We have momentum. It was a very hard-fought series against a well-coached Holy Cross team (in last week's quarterfinals)," Marottolo said. "The games could've gone either way. We feel good heading into our game against Air Force. But the championship goes through Air Force until somebody takes it from them.
"I know our guys are excited to play Air Force. They're a very good skating team. They play like us."