New coach, new faces, same goals: previewing the Saline Hockey season.

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Saline Hockey had all the ingredients of a team ready to compete for a SEC title in 2020: veteran leadership, experienced goalies, and a new coach coming over from a top notch program. A lot of things did not go according to plan.

Yet considering some of the aspects of a season in 2020, a 6-9 record can not be considered terrible. Was it a missed chance to capitalize on a veteran roster? Possibly, but Coach Zagata was more focused on changing the culture last year. However, last year was marred by COVID, making it difficult to get a true feel for the team.

“Last year it was so difficult to build those bonds with the guys because of the lack of interaction with each other,” said Zagata. “This year, a lot of it started in the offseason for our guys. By spending so much time together, starting back in the spring, the players dedicated themselves to the weight room, and were able to build a foundation there.”

Hence, as the players have said, the culture has drastically changed under Zagata. Jake Honan, who has gone through the peaks and valleys of Saline Hockey in his 4 years on varsity, said that he’s noticed the difference in coaching staffs. “Coach Zagata really has installed the players with accountability and constantly putting in great effort. In the past, that has not been the case.” Honan stressed the importance of the weight room, and how Zagata has gotten players into lifting. Through weight training, the Hornets have built up strength and relationships that can only be forged through sweating it out with teammates.

Julian Downey spoke of how when he was a young sophomore entering varsity hockey, he did not receive the introduction from teammates that he would have wished for. However, between the seniors and Zagata, new leaders have emerged. “We want to give others room to lead,” said Downey.

This year, while Saline is a young team breaking in new faces, Zagata is excited for the potential of this team. “I am very happy with the way this team is building... I am excited to see how they grow,” Zagata said.

ROSTER ANALYSIS

Goalies: As is seen unique to any other sport, the goalie can sometimes single handedly carry a team to wins. However, the Hornets are breaking in two new faces in front of the net. As little of experience they have, everyone on the roster is intrigued with the talent of both goalies.

For Tyler Schroeder, the work that has been put in the offseason did not go unnoticed by teammates. Joe Raupp stated that, “Tyler has put in a ton of effort this year, and it’s been awesome to see him grow. We continue to challenge him in practice, and he keeps working.” Yet this will be Schroeder’s first year, so it’s certainly plausible that there will be ups and downs for the young sophomore.

As the wear and tear of a hockey season rolls on, a backup goalie is absolutely necessary. Saline has one of those in junior Drew Helmer, who Zagata thinks can have a great year. “Obviously Helmer has to take a huge step coming from JV, but we really like what he has to offer,” said Zagata.

Defenders: Unlike the goalies, the backline is buoyed by two of the Hornets most experienced and talented players. Two captains man the backline, allowing for a little bit of leeway with goalkeeping play. Colton Cundiff and Julian Downey both have been around for 3 years, and as they go into their senior years big things are expected.

Specifically, Cundiff is wearing the C (capitan) on the jersey, which is a testament to his improved leadership skills. Zagata said that “he has provided a pathway for the younger players on how to succeed.” Furthermore, Cundiff has the speed and skill that some defenders don't possess. Cundiff has seen talented defenders pass through the system, and now it's his turn to take a big step. His consistency is a big reason for his emergence.

Downey also has big goals in front of him, as the burly defender brings a physical side to the back end. While certainly physical, Downey also brings speed to the back half, as a more aggressive and risky back half player. With these two holding down the defense, it takes pressure off the goalies.

Beyond those two, there is plenty of depth on the back half. Zagata expects Aidan Granica to take a big step this year. Beyond the defense, Granica has provided jolt to the power play unit in providing offense. Additionally, Maxin Sorell, Tommy O’Toole, and Cullen Ellis will give depth to the defense.

Forwards: For Saline, losing Ben Wild will be a big blow to the offense. Yet, it will be a team effort this year to provide the offensive spark. However, with losing so many forwards, the Hornets know they will have to score more dirty goals. Raupp said that “we know we're gonna have to get around the net and muck it up... we have been working super hard on that in practice.” Raupp is expected to provide a huge jolt to the offense. Coming over from football, Zagata singled him out as the player which the season can hinge on. His athleticism will be crucial to scoring goals.

Furthermore, captain Griffin Clark has played varsity since his freshman year, and is ready for his crescendo. Jake Honan said that Clark’s “communication and leadership skills have improved so much since his freshman year.” His finishing of the puck is a skill that not many other forwards possess on the roster. Watch out for him to lead the team in scoring.

As someone who many have singled out as a breakout player, Mateo Iudapolio has taken great strides between last year and now. The sophomore was the only freshman on varsity last year, and was quiet in his presence. Yet, through adding on weight this offseason, and becoming more comfortable within his role, Iudapolio is expected to have a breakthrough season.

Every hockey team needs an enforcer, and Jake Honan is expected to regain that role. The most vocal leader on this team, Honan has gained more and more strength as the years have progressed, and is one of the most physically imposing players in the conference. He has a strong slapshot, and look for him to break out of his scoring slump over the past few seasons.

This forward group has depth, with Tristan Trier, Andrew Updike, and Bryce Ronewicz all expected to contribute this year. The offensive side of the puck might be a struggle at the beginning of the year, but this offense has great potential to emerge as one of the SEC’s tops.

Final Assessment: Saline’s coaches and players alike believe this team has rebuilt the culture around this program. Coming over from a championship winning program Livonia Stevenson, Zagata has begun to instill confidence in his players.

Zagata acknowledges that the offense might need to score dirty goals, and that the team is inexperienced, but is not shy about this year’s expectations.

“Our goal is to win our conference championship, and that can lead into big playoff wins,” said the coaching staff.

A conference championship seems like a reasonable expectation for the Hornets, with a team brimming with unknown talent, buoyed by veterans on the back half. With a weaker but improving conference, the goal should be to win the SEC, propelling the Hornets into playoff conversations yet again, hoping to slay those regional exits demons.

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