Patient, Focused, UMass Players Await New Coach
by Joe Meloni/CHN Staff Writer
Due back in Amherst in a handful of weeks, Massachusetts senior Rocco Carzo's offseason routine has followed its usual track. Entering his final year with UMass, Carzo has trained hard, hoping to make his last year the best of his career. It's the offseason, though, and typically there is time for some relaxation. Time to forget, for a while anyway, the work and the stress and enjoy the time off.
Three weeks ago, a wrench thrust into Carzo's enjoyable summer away from school when Don "Toot" Cahoon parted ways with the school amid differences with athletic director John McCutcheon regarding the school's support for the program. McCutcheon has denied most of the rumored frustration, instead focusing his efforts on finding a new leader for Carzo and his teammates.
"Heading back in a few weeks, we're hoping we'll hear something soon. I thought we had a coach earlier, but then it all happened," Carzo said. "We have to be patient, but we're a little worried. We're not panicking, but we just want it to get figured out."
Throughout the process, the potential impact of hiring a new coach so close to the start of the season has weighed on Carzo, McCutcheon and everyone involved at UMass. Thus far, Quinnipiac's Rand Pecknold and Holy Cross' Paul Pearl emerged as viable replacements only to return to their current employers, reportedly rebuffing overtures from McCutcheon and UMass.
Monday night, a new name arose, with U.S. Hockey Report reporting Cedar Rapids Roughriders (USHL) coach Mark Carlson had become a frontrunner for the position. Earlier that day, long-time Boston College assistant Mike Cavanaugh was said to remove his name from the running, though, it was never quite clear how legitimate his candidacy was. Late Tuesday, a source told CHN that Carlson's candidacy has progressed, and an offer had been made.
Both UMass and Cedar Rapids declined to comment, but Carzo remains confident a decision will be made when it is right.
"Not much has been said from the school," Carzo said. "We aren't worrying about it. We just have to focus on what we can control right now, just getting ready for the season. We're sure whoever they hire will be a good coach."
Earlier, reports of Yale assistant Red Gendron, who served as an assistant under Cahoon from 2005 through 2011 before heading to New Haven, interviewing for the position gave the players, current and former, hope that the situation had a clear end. Whether it's Gendron, Carlson or another candidate in the end, the players remain confident in their administration. Preferring the right candidate be found in time, instead of a hasty hire to assuage concern surrounding the program.
Another candidate reportedly interviewed on Tuesday was New Hampshire assistant Scott Borek. Still, Carlson appears to be the favorite. Vermont assistant John Micheletto is in the running as well.
The Cahoon departure seemed to come faster than most expected, but it was clear the 12-year head coach in Amherst was quickly falling out of favor within the administration. While players, current and former, expressed nothing but gratitude for Cahoon and his role in the development of their careers and the program, the last five seasons have been a struggle for the Minutemen.
"I loved playing for Toot," Carzo said. "He put his heart and soul into our team and that program. It sucks how he went out, but that's sports. Even at our level, it's a business."
"I do not believe I would've had the privilege to play professional hockey had it not been for (Cahoon's) guidance," former UMass player Cory Quirk, who played under Cahoon from 2005 through 2009, said. "It's always tough when a coach goes out the way he did, but it makes you realize that it's a business even at the collegiate level. I'm grateful that I was a UMass hockey player, and I'm looking forward to seeing the program grow with whoever is behind the bench."
Since the 2006-07 season, when the Minutemen earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and defeated top-seeded Clarkson, Cahoon's teams posted a combined .340 winning percentage in the second half of the year. Moreover, the Minutemen didn't finish higher than sixth in league play in those five seasons. In their five Hockey East Tournament appearances since, UMass has failed to advance past the first round, being swept every year except 2008-09, when the seventh-seeded Minutemen fell to No. 2 Northeastern in three games.
Entering the 2012-13 season, Cahoon was in the final year of a three-year contract. Despite Cahoon often shying from conversations about his future with the program, Carzo and his teammates noticed some changes in their mentor during the 2011-12 season that led them to believe he was distracted by his future.
"We knew he only had one year left on his contract, but we thought, if he was going to leave, it would've happened sooner," UMass junior Troy Power said. "I was shocked and a little disappointed, but, from what he said to us, I could tell it wasn't an easy decision. We could tell how hard it was for him to step down as our coach."
"(Cahoon) seemed to be panicking more (last season)," Carzo said. "We'd play well on a Friday, but lose 4-3, real close games. On the next day everything would be different. The lines would be changed, and guys would or wouldn't be playing. I think our goalie situation really showed that. We never really had a No. 1. But, even in practice, we'd try a new system, and we wouldn't get it right. The next day, we'd be trying something else. We were never really able to get in a rhythm, and he seemed like he was panicking more. I don't know why exactly, maybe it was the contract. But we all talked about how things were always different. We'd try different systems and different lines."
Work to Do
Inconsistency at different positions plagued UMass, and the desire for more stability in the lineup is certainly something the next coach, who ever it may be, must bring. Cahoon's top assistant Len Quesnelle is still under contract and will likely remain in the role under the new coach. Sources said Quesnelle interviewed for the position, but indications suggest McCutcheon is looking for a long-term solution outside the program.
The eventual hire, despite minimal time to prepare for the season, has a strong base of talent returning with 17 upperclassmen, along with eight sophomores, coming back. Leading the group on the ice are juniors Mike Pereira and Conor Sheary, two of the top returning scorers in the league, while the experience-heavy team appears to have used this time of uncertainty to bond even further.
"I know we have a very capable team. We can make whatever kind of run we want to in Hockey East," Power said. "But, no matter who the coach is, if we don't work, we'll be a sub-par team in this league. We're a very close team, and we play for each other. I love the guys I go out there with, and I know every other player would say the same thing. We love representing our university and UMass hockey."
Should a decision come Wednesday or a week from now, the Minutemen, now perennially considered a team that would never emerge, enter next season likely to be among the favorites to miss the Hockey East Tournament even with a veteran team. Carzo has thought about this for most of the summer. Whether he's training, preparing for his final year as a college hockey player, or relaxing, enjoying his final summer as a college student, the disappointment he saw from UMass' three seniors after their fourth consecutive first-round postseason exit is something he never wants to experience.
"I watched Danny Hobbs, T.J. Syner and Mikey Marcou end their careers that way, without getting to the (TD) Garden, and I don't want to go out that way," Carzo said. "I saw them give everything they could last season and for four seasons, but they were still wondering if they could've just given it one more shift or gone a little harder if it would've been different."
When UMass' next coach arrives in Amherst, he'll inherit a group of players desperate for a leader to guide them where their previous coach failed to. Still, as far as Carzo is concerned, Cahoon will have a place reserved should the Minutemen reach their goal.
"I want to end my career on a winning team. I want to get to the Garden," Carzo said, "and I hope Toot is there if we do."