November 28, 2008 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Big Green Boost From Underclassmen

by Joseph Edwards/CHN Writer

Frustrating. That's how Rob Pritchard describes it.

The Dartmouth captain was there on Media Day, listening to not one, but two polls picking his team to finish 11th in the twelve-team ECAC.

"I knew they were wrong," he says. "They look at teams in terms of players we've lost versus players we've gained. Our goal is that same as every team's goal: you want to be first in the league. You never want to say that you're rebuilding."

Under the 'Lost Players' column were names like Nick Johnson, J.T. Wyman, and Jon Grecu, three of the team's top-four scorers in 2007-08, as well as Mike Devine, the team's stalwart between the pipes, all gone the way of cap and gown. That's from a team that was already near the bottom of the ECAC.

But it's important to remember that last season came only after years of being very competitive, repeatedly falling just short of ECAC tournament titles and/or NCAA bids. And in some way, last season Dartmouth was a victim of its own success, losing some players early to the pros and unable to absorb it as easily as the national powers. And the very talented coaching staff that built Dartmouth from complete oblivion into the realm of respectability over the last decade, despite those agonizingly-close seasons, is still there and was not going to stay down for long.

"I don't blame them for picking us to have a down season," head coach Bob Gaudet says. "Preseason polls don't faze me. We lost some good guys to pro hockey, to graduation in the past few years, and we have a lot of young players playing for us. We don't have that main guy, but our guys are stepping up."

It's showing for the Big Green, who reeled off five-straight wins after dropping their first two games to open the season. Victories over St. Lawrence, Clarkson, and Colgate have brought Dartmouth to a 5-2 league record, good for second place, and a 5-3 overall mark, which has earned them national recognition as a top-20 team.

All this, despite having 18 underclassmen on the roster.

That includes an emerging sophomore class, with Adam Estoclet putting up 10 points, good for second in the league, and Joe Stejskal and Scott Fleming leading the ECAC with five goals apiece. There have been early returns from the freshman class as well, as eight of nine first-year players have suited up, and five have recorded points. Doug Jones has tallied eight points while leading the team during power play situations, and Jody O'Neill has seized control of the crease with hard work and quick acclimatization to the collegiate game.

"We're young at all positions," Gaudet says. " But we have a lot of depth. These guys are really selfless, really humble. It's been just what I expected — a fun team to coach."

It's that mindset that has brought the young team together so quickly.

"It's the same thing every team faces," Pritchard says. "You expect to lose a quarter of your team, and that's going to create a new chemistry. We've come together and surprised a lot of people, and we're not even playing to our potential. With our young guys contributing early, we're only going to improve."

They must improve with teams non-conference foes like New Hampshire and league showdowns with Princeton, Cornell, Quinnipiac, and Yale ahead on the schedule. So just how far will Dartmouth go this season?

"I'm not going to predict W's and L's," Gaudet says. "Why shouldn't we shoot for the top? I'd be doing the kids a disservice. I know I'm going to have a team that'll work hard and is going to play every shift. We're going to give ourselves a chance. We have to concern ourselves with the here and now — the outcome will take care of itself."

This upcoming weekend will have some strong implications to the season's outcome, as Dartmouth will head to Providence and will see defending NCAA champ Boston College this weekend, both big tests for the Big Green.

"We'd like to see how we stack up," Pritchard says. "We weren't given much credit, and we want to prove some people in the media and the NCAA wrong."

To do that, Pritchard says the team must follow their coaches' words and "control the controllables" and take the same approach every weekend. Of course, that may be a bit tough as the team has an eye to the future, with a trip to Sweden and Denmark on their docket mid-December, a trip which the coach hopes will give his players a broader spectrum of hockey in the world, as well as bring the team closer together.

For a team made up with majority of underclassmen and no apparent superstars, that could cause plenty of fear for opposing teams for years to come.

"We love that humble, hungry team," Gaudet says. "We're going to continue to build. In the next few years, we'll be a team to be reckoned with."

If they're not already, before the season is over, that is.

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