|Senior captain Dana Borges and the rest of the upper classmen will look to guide the Skyhawks back to the NE-10 Championship game this season.|
FOXBORO — J.J. Sabin is justifiably excited, but also a little envious. Sabin is a senior at Stonehill College, so the light at the end of the academic tunnel gets brighter every day. But he's also a defenseman on the Skyhawks' hockey team and part of him wishes he could hang around a bit longer to participate in the development of what he thinks is a promising team.
"We've got 15 freshmen on the team and I'm jealous of them," said Sabin, who is a product of Milton High School and the Tilton School. "They've still got three and a half awesome years ahead of them, and I'm kind of winding down.
"But we've still got a lot of season left."
That season, the Skyhawks' second under head coach Patrick Leahy, is off to a perhaps predictably up-and-down start. Stonehill opened with an impressive 8-3 victory over Johnson & Wales, followed by splitting two games against SUNY Canton, then absorbed three straight losses – the last in that string a 6-5, overtime defeat at Westfield State College in which it had a 5-2, third-period lead.
Stonehill bounced back on Wednesday night at Foxboro Sports Center, though, pulling away from Southern New Hampshire University for a 4-1 victory in its Northeast-10 Conference opener.
"That's what we talked about in the locker room after the second period," said Dana Borges, the senior captain from Taunton and Coyle-Cassidy High School, who had piled up a team-high 7 goals and 12 points through Stonehill's first seven games. "'Let's finish this game. Let's close it out.' We knew what kind of collapse we'd had (at Westfield), so putting two more goals home in the third period was a big thing for us."
Upperclassmen like Borges and Sabin, two of the Skyhawks' five seniors, feel more big things lie ahead. They give much credit to Leahy, who accepted the job – his first at the college level – too late to recruit for last season, but made up for that this year: Stonehill added 15 freshmen to the roster for 2012-13, and every one had played at least once through the season's first seven games.
"Last year, we didn't have depth," said Leahy, a Canton native (he played at both Canton High School and Archbishop Williams) who played two seasons of minor-league hockey after college (Plattsburgh State and the former North Adams State, now the Mass. College of Liberal Arts). "I had two lines I felt comfortable with, and maybe three defensemen."
Fortunately, Stonehill also had the Northeast-10 Rookie of the Year – Chris Tasiopoulos of Norwell and Thayer Academy – in goal, some scoring on those top two lines, and a new attitude under Leahy. After a 5-18-1 campaign in 2010-11, the Skyhawks went 10-12-3 with Leahy at the helm, and reached the NE-10 championship game, which was won by St. Anselm.
Stonehill doesn't have as many experienced players this year, but Leahy says "you're going to see solid goaltending … (defensemen) that are puck-movers, who are going to enable us to break out of the zone, and three really good lines, with a fourth line I wouldn't be afraid to put out against another team's first line."
Leahy, whose team is almost as home-grown (11 players hail from South Shore communities) as it is young, does have some proven scorers to rely on – some with excellent bloodlines. Bryan Rooney, a winger from Canton (and Canton High), whose two goals (Nos. 3 and 4 of the season) sparked Wednesday's win, is the nephew of ex-Montreal Canadiens Stanley Cup winner Steve Rooney, and has a younger brother playing at Providence College. There's also Weymouth's Bill Carey (Catholic Memorial), also a 4-goal scorer through 7 games, whose older brother Paul was a two-time NCAA champion at Boston College and currently a rookie with the Avs' American Hockey League affiliate, the Lake Erie Monsters.
Both juniors, Rooney and Carey were freshmen on that 5-win team in 2010-11, so they're understandably thrilled by the progress their program is now making.
"It's going to be interesting this year," Carey said. "It's early in the season, but I see all these younger guys, and everyone has already shown they can play at this level. They've stepped right in and battled hard."
"We've gotten better and better," said Rooney, an assistant captain along with Sabin. "I can't believe how far we've come."
The Skyhawks, surprise participants in last season's Northeast-10 championship game, want to get back there this season. Some of their young players will have to develop quickly, but Leahy promises his team won't be an easy out.
"It's more my team now than last year," said the coach. "Depth, and our compete factor, will be the biggest changes."
Mike Loftus may be reached at email@example.com.