March 23, 2007 PRINT Bookmark and Share

60-Minutemen ... And More

by Joe Meloni/CHN Reporter

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Despite the end result, a 3-2 double overtime loss to the No. 1 seed New Hampshire Wildcats in the semifinals of the Hockey East Tournament, when Massachusetts left Boston last weekend, it knew what it had accomplished and, more importantly, what was left to be done.

Losing in the Hockey East Tournament jeopardized the Minutemen's NCAA tournament chances, but key season-series victories over Boston College and New Hampshire made UMass a great candidate for an at-large bid for hockey's answer to March Madness.

The Minutemen (21-12-5) received that at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history and didn't disappoint in their debut on the national stage — upsetting top-seeded Clarkson on Friday, 1-0, in overtime.

The lone goal of the contest came at the 7:40 mark of the extra session. Freshman forward Will Ortiz gained control of the puck and circled around the net hoping to find an open teammate or a corner of the net vacated by Clarkson net minder David Leggio. Ortiz' stuff shot attempt ricocheted off Leggio to an open Jordan Virtue. Virtue got a quick shot off. Although Leggio made the initial save and pounced on the puck, it squirted loose to senior Kevin Jarman who lifted the rebound home, assuring that the Minutemen would play for, at least, one more day.

Don Cahoon has taken UMass to its first NCAAs and first NCAA win. (photo: Jeff Wang)

Don Cahoon has taken UMass to its first NCAAs and first NCAA win. (photo: Jeff Wang)

"It started with me and Will Ortiz exchanging the puck around the net," Jarman said. "He did a nice job taking it to the front of the net, I went backdoor. It scooted out to Jordan Virtue who set a nice backhand on net and I was just fortunate to pickup the garbage and put it over the goalie."

The nature of the game virtually assured that the game-winning strike wouldn't be a work of art, but for a program like UMass, Jarman's tally was about more than just winning the game. The goal marked the Minutemen's arrival as a force in collegiate hockey.

When UMass' hockey program was reborn in 1993, those involved knew that creating a contending program would be quite the task. The Minutemen joined Hockey East in the program's second year and spent the next nine seasons in the basement of the most competitive conference in all of college hockey.

The turnaround began when UMass whisked away Don Cahoon from Princeton, he program he helped bring to unforeseen heights in the late '90s.

In 2004, the Minutemen advanced to the Hockey East Championship game for the first time ever, falling to Maine, 2-1, in triple overtime. Many thought the Minutemen would build on that, but Boston College bounced the Minutemen in the opening round of the tournament in 2005 and Boston University dealt the Maroon and White the same fate last season.

After sweeping Maine in the opening round of the HEA Tournament this year, UMass picked up where they left off in 2004. Bringing the program to new heights and permanently establishing UMass' place in college hockey means a lot to seniors like Jarman and team captain Matt Anderson but by no means are they satisfied just yet.

"When all is said and done and the season is over maybe we can look back and feel good about ourselves," Anderson said. "I don't think right now is the time to do that.

"I feel really privileged to know that maybe we're paving the way for someone else."

A great example of the level of respect UMass earned themselves in the last few seasons is the recruits landed by head coach Don Cahoon in the last few seasons. Sophomore goaltender Jon Quick is the team's unquestioned MVP and chose a career at UMass over several other nationally recognized college hockey powers.

Quick isn't alone either, several other underclassmen have the Minutemen poised for a run toward the top of Hockey East in the years to come. Sophomore center Cory Quirk had a breakout year in 2006-07 (13-18-31) and should be in the middle of UMass' top line for the next two seasons.

Another center that Cahoon is excited about is freshman Brett Watson. Before the season began, Cahoon spoke of Watson's instincts and his ability to make plays that may not appear on the stat sheet. Since his time in the maroon and white began, Watson etched a permanent spot for himself on UMass' penalty kill and, in his most recent action, won 12 face-offs for the Minutemen - including a few key draws in his own zone late in Friday's contest.

"Brett doesn't play like a freshman, he never has. He came here as a real cerebral player, the type of guy that executes the system as we teach it," Cahoon said about the son of two-time Stanley Cup champion Jim Watson. "He's very dependable, he's our best penalty killer and a terrific face-off guy. He comes from a great hockey family."

Although the players reached an all-time high for the program with Friday's win, Cahoon hopes that the victory over Clarkson isn't the last one for this season.

"We're grateful as a program to live another day," Cahoon said. "I told the guys before the game, you play well today you get rewarded with further play.

"Our challenge now is to get grounded enough so that we can move on in a positive way."

Competing in Hockey East isn't easy. Cahoon believed that the program belonged when he took the job prior to the 2000 season. Now, for the first time, so does everyone else.

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