Young and Restless: Freshmen Spark Notre Dame
by Michael King/CHN Reporter
MANCHESTER, N.H. For Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson, the parallels are simple. The last time he was a part of a program that had a heavily freshman-laden roster, that team won a national championship.
The Irish enter Saturday's game with Merrimack in the first round of the NCAA tournament having enjoyed a successful season with younger players taking key roles.
As an assistant under Frank Anzalone, Jackson helped Lake Superior State win its first NCAA championship during the 1987-88 season. And the unique aspects of that team's composition has stayed with the Notre Dame coach. He reasons that this experience helped him coach this year.
"We had 12 freshmen on that team, and we won a national championship," Jackson said. "I recruited that class, and I was very fortunate to coach them in their senior year as their head coach. I got a feel for that first hand when I was there."
With 23 wins this season and a second-place finish in the CCHA regular season standings, clearly having this perspective helped Jackson determine how to coach this team. Questions naturally develop over the squad's relationship between older and younger players with 11-12 freshmen dressing every night.
"These kids are pretty humble as well," Jackson said. "It's hard for freshmen to come in and take ice time away from upperclassmen and not create envy. They're humble enough to where that hasn't been an issue."
Jackson believes the passion that first-year players bring for hockey and the college experience helped motivate his team this season. That enthusiasm, he reasons, helped to rejuvenate him as a coach after a down on the ice last season. The Irish were a disappointing 13-17-8 last season, after qualifying for the NCAAs in 2007-2009.
When dealing with a large number of freshmen, much of the coaching becomes teaching these players how to be student athletes competing at the highest level. Their strong passion, if not regulated, can lead to additional problems.
"It can be uncontained enthusiasm at times which makes it a little more challenging," Jackson said. "And with everyone of them in different ways, you have to grab ahold and pull them back in every once and awhile in certain areas of their lives.
The Irish boast a deep and talented group of freshmen which has contributed 54 percent of the team's scoring this season. The stars of the class — Anders Lee and T.J. Tyman — lead the team in scoring with 22 goals each. But it's not just them. Jeff Costello has added 11 goals, including some big ones in the postseason. Bryan Rust and Mike Voran add another 37 combined points. Even freshman goaltender Steven Summerhays has enjoyed success during his limited time in net, earning five wins.
Tynan finished among the national leaders in scoring. He planned to enroll at Notre Dame next season, but forward Kyle Palmieri's decision to sign an NHL contract created a spot for the freshman.
Much of Lee's success has come on the power play as evidenced by his team-high six goals with the extra man.
Though the freshmen bring their talent and enthusiasm, the Notre Dame seniors experienced what's its like to play in a Frozen Four during their first year in 2008, including Ryan Guentzel.
The senior learned the importance of confidence and getting off to good starts in games.
"In past years, in my freshman year when had success, we got on point very quickly," Guentzel said. "And especially with a younger team, confidence is a big factor so setting the tone early in the game will be huge for us.
Senior captain Joe Lavin his coach's assessment of the young players' impact.
"They are the top players from their junior teams, so they have leadership qualities coming in here," he said. "It's easy to have a good locker room with a group of leaders."
Against a Merrimack team that enjoyed a strong season, including an appearance in the Hockey East championship game, the onus will fall on players from all four class years to continue Notre Dame's success.
Meanwhile, Jackson is confident in the ability of his players to stay focused and compete as a team.
"This is the closest group I've ever had," he said.