Archive for January, 2010

Hockey Cats baffle and frustrate … everyone

January 30, 2010

This is, without question or debate, the most frustrating and baffling University of Vermont men’s hockey team of the Kevin Sneddon coaching era.

For reasons that defy understanding, these Catamounts can be incredibly mediocre or very good, all within a single weekend.

And it’s been that way virtually every weekend; at least, every Hockey East weekend.

So it happened at Gutterson Fieldhouse against Maine. It’s just this time, UVM didn’t get away with its watch-one, play-one game pattern. The Black Bears’ power play was just too good to let the Cats get away with blatant breakdowns and forged a 4-4 tie Saturday, taking three points on the weekend.

That aside, as Maine coach Tim Whitehead emphatically stated, the Black Bears had no right to be in this game through 40 minutes, not with the domination Vermont displayed.

And therein is the growing frustration for and with this team. Why can’t the Catamounts at least play with the energy, the urgency, the desperation every game that they so often call forth after a defeat?

The players don’t know. The coaches don’t know. No one in the seats or the press boxes know. And it’s getting awfully late in the season for this to be happening.

Losses are going to happen in Hockey East, even when a team plays well. It’s that close this year, top to bottom. Yet any team that doesn’t play with energy and urgency doesn’t give itself a chance to win.

Clearly this team has significant faults. The power play is close to abysmal; the team temprement blows hot and cold; key veteran players make big mistakes, mental or physical, at critical times.

But they can play; at least, they can play at times, just not all the time.

Right now, the Catamounts can’t be worried about getting home ice for the Hockey East quarterfinals. They need to worry about qualifying for the tournament, and who would have thought that in October?

As of today, Vermont is tied for seventh, but only three points ahead of No. 9 Merrimack and six up on No. 10 Providence. Next up for UVM? Two at Providence, followed by two at The Gut against Merrimack.

So what’s going to happen over the next couple of weeks? Who knows? In a tough and unpredictable league, no team is more baffling than the Catamounts.

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Hoop Cats bounce back

January 30, 2010

The three-game losing streak is history. Now the University of Vermont men’s basketball team can look forward to Tuesday’s game with Maine.

Pending the outcome of tonight’s Boston University-Stony Brook game, the Catamounts (6-3) are still in good position to make a push for the regular-season America East title, though the challenge might be beyond their ability if their guard play doesn’t improve.

Meanwhile, Saturday, the Catamounts surged past a young Albany team through the combination of experience, defense and Evan Fjeld to start the second half.

Down by five at the half, Vermont outscored the Great Danes 25-3 in the next 10 minutes. Offensively, Fjeld supplied the ignition point with his rebounding, scoring and defense, though Maurice Joseph’s 3 to open the onslaught seemed to inject confidence and energy into the Catamounts.

Even with Marqus Blakely hampered by foul trouble, Vermont simply was too much for Albany to handle, especially with a harassing Catamount defense taking command.

On this afternoon at Patrick Gym, the Catamounts displayed the grit and desire they’ll need against Maine on Wednesday.

It’s a wide-open race in America East with no team having fewer than two league losses at this point. The title’s there for the Catamounts to grab — if they can.

A week to forget for UVM hockey and basketball

January 29, 2010

It’s been a brutal week for the University of Vermont’s Big Three of intercollegiate sports: men’s hockey, men’s basketball and women’s basketball.

Going into today’s games, the Catamounts are a collective 1-4 since Sunday — 0-4 after Sunday — and the salt in those wounds are that those UVM teams have been losing just the kind of games they need to win to assert themself in the Easts, Hockey and America.

Let’s start with the hockey team. Friday night, the Catamounts had the opportunity to gain ground in the chase for home ice for the conference quarterfinals.

To be polite, they tripped over their own skate laces, stumbling to a 6-3 defeat by Maine..

Maine is a good team and the Black Bears definitely did what they needed to do to win. Credit them for that. Yet their task was made much easier by UVM’s baffling ability to make crucial mistakes, failure to produce at key times and not play with the necessary urgency until the game was out of reach.

This was an ugly loss. Four power play goals yielded; no power play goals scored when the outcome was still in doubt (and they had plenty of opportunities); tentative play, except for the likes of freshmen Tobias Nilsson-Roos, Sebastian Stalberg, David Pacan and Chris McCarthy.

It appears more and more likely that this team, once thought to have the potential to be at least a darkhorse challenger for a league title, is a mediocre, middle-of-the-pack team at best.

If something doesn’t happen soon, as much as last year was the wonderful season that was, this one will go into the record books as one of the most disappointing of what might have been. By the end of tonight’s rematch with Maine at 7, the Catamounts might be more worried about just making the playoffs than getting home ice.

As for the men’s basketball team, it, too, has a chance for some redemption with a 2 p.m. game against Albany at Patrick Gym.

After a 5-0 league start, the men have lost three straight, including road decisions to Binghamton and New Hampshire this week. Before that, they let a potential home win against Stony Brook slip through their hands.

The Catamounts have one win over Albany and they need another. Like the hockey team, it seems to be something different every night: failure to make a clutch play here, having no outside game there, defensive breakdowns everywhere.

Once a contender for the America East title, Vermont now must rebuild is confidence and its status. No time better to start than today.

And the women? They split this week, thrashing Stony Brook on Sunday after a slow start but coming up short in their biggest league game to date, 38-36 to Hartford at Patrick.

That win all but assured Hartford of the top seed for the tournament, pending a UVM win at Hartford and the Hawks unexpectedly stumbling somewhere.

Hartford’s defense, plus Diana Delva, played major roles in the Hawks’ win, but so did Vermont’s poor shooting: 1-for-12 from 3-point range, 24.5 percent from anywhere overall, and that includes way too many easy chances when the Cats beat Hartford’s defense.

Sunday, the women will try to regain their swagger against New Hampshire — the Wildcats nearly beat them in Durham — at 2 p.m.

Time has nearly run out on the hockey team for the regular season; it’s getting there for the basketball teams.

Anatomy of a losing streak

January 29, 2010

The University of Vermont men’s basketball team hasn’t had many three-game America East losing streaks during coach Mike Lonergan’s tenure. Three, to be exact. The first was in 2006, Lonergan’s first season. Another was in 2008. The third time is now.

And this one seemingly came out of nowhere. Before successive defeats to Stony Brook, Binghamton and New Hampshire, the Catamounts had won seven straight games and 12 out of 13, they blew out America East preseason favorite Boston University, and they led the nation in road victories.

Basketball is a fickle game.

“I knew we’d stumble a little this season,” Lonergan said. “I just didn’t think we’d lose three in a row.”

Lonergan said Friday he doesn’t see a need to chew out his players. Or panic.

Poor foul shooting was the main culprit of a 65-60 home loss to Stony Brook and a 73-67 setback at Binghamton.

Wednesday’s 75-56 loss at New Hampshire was a perfect storm: UNH hitting 11 of 18 3-pointers against Vermont’s lax perimeter defense and Marqus Blakey having a rare off night.

“The first two losses (against Stony Brook and Binghamton) were a direct result of free-throw shooting. We didn’t play our best, but we left 12-15 points on the line,” Lonergan said. “(Against UNH), we got off to a good start and we let their best players beat us. There guards each had 21 and our game plan was to control them. And Marqus (Blakely) had a rough game; he had eight turnovers and no assists. We are not a good team unless he is playing  at a high level which he usually does. We had an awful lot of turnovers and we got outplayed in a lot of positions.”

UVM junior guard Joey Accaoui said, after watching film, it was evident the team’s energy level had tapered from where it was when it was winning.

He also said the team’s recent results have served as, to put it in his exact words — “a punch in the face.”

The Catamounts had a similar experience early this season when they dropped consecutive games to Providence, Drexel and Cornell. Then they won 12 of their next 13 games.

“I think we bounced back pretty well,” Accaoui said. “We have a mature group of guys and I think we are going to handle this well.”

Hockey Cats need a voice, and more

January 28, 2010

In a mid-December blog, I discussed the need for leadership from within the UVM men’s hockey team.

A month later, the topic was again the subject of interest at coach Kevin Sneddon’s weekly meeting with the media, in part because Sneddon referred to the need for a voice to emerge from the locker room in a television interview during Sunday’s win over Massachusetts.

Leadership among players emerges several ways. There are the captains, sometimes selected by players and sometimes chosen by coaches. There are the upper classmen, who have been through it all before. And there are a few individuals whose personalities and traits earn them the kind of respect among their peers necessary to lead.

Every student-athlete brings something to the team as a competitor. Some have great skills; they’re the stars. Others are role players, the ones who grind it out. Only the rarest, as one coach put it, have fourth-liner mentalities and first-liner skills, combining the best assets without the downside of either.

So it is with captains. Some lead by example, working hard in practice but playing hard in games, but are otherwise reserved and quiet. Some can deliver fiery speeches or rah-rah pep talks. Rare is the captain who has the perfect combination of athletic and people skills.

In recent UVM history, think Martin St. Louis and Jaime Sifers, each among the best at his position, tough, talented, emotional, a driving force not only for himself but for his teammates and his team, but even they needed support and leadership assistance.

Quietly, Sneddon has looked to junior defenseman Kevan Miller to emerge as the voice of the Catamounts, the one player who can rally the troops or deliver stern messages. If Miller can, he will give UVM a three-headed captaincy that could drive Vermont toward a strong finish to the season, joining lead-by-example captain Brian Roloff and lead-through-emotion assistant captain Patrick Cullity.

Roloff readily admits he’s not an in-your-face type of captain, and he said, “That kind of ‘grab a guy by the collar and set him straight’ would certainly work good for some guys; other guys I think might not respond well with that, but there’s certainly a place for it.”

Nominally a captain, as is Roloff (Cullity’s an assistant), Miller has deferred to the seniors, but said he will take a more active role.

“When it comes down to it, it’s one guy who the Coach wants to find that can really lead the team, get the fire going and kind of look to to be the voice of the team, which is like the guys sitting down in the locker room between periods and they look to the guy as the person they want to hear from,” Miller said.

“We’re trying to find that here and it’s taken a little longer than we’ve expected. Hopefully, we’ll get it going here,” Miller said.

* * *

Pressure? Sure, there’s pressure, and maybe that’s what the Catamount need.

“Maybe they need to feel a little more of it. More sense of urgency could be the difference and (tonight) that’s what I’m hoping we see, that sense of urgency from the moment the puck drops till the end of the buzzer,” said Sneddon.

“I think it would be good,” Roloff said. “The majority of this team has seen some pretty big games and maybe (we’re) kind of pushing it off and, well, we can always take care of business when we need to, but I do think there is a sense of urgency right now coming out now that we have 12 games left in Hockey East.

“It’s starting to hit home, unfortunately a little later than we would have liked, but we’ve certainly got a good opportunity against Maine.”

* * *

Speaking of Maine, the Black Bears have scored 45 percent of their goals on the power play with Gustav Nyquist (13-19-32), Brian Flynn, Tanner House, Robby Dee and Adam Shemansky combining for 24 man-up goals. Three of those goals, plus a short-handed goal, came in the Bears’ 4-1 win over Vermont at Maine early in the season.

UVM has collected 22 percent of its goals on the power play. Its penalty killers have excelled, allowing three power play goals in 12 games (3 for 53, or a 94.3 kill rate).

* * *

Maine goalie Scott Darlington (2.62, .910) missed a couple of games with a knee injury but should be ready this weekend … UVM forward Jack Downing will sit out tonight’s game as the third game of a three-game suspension for a violation of the student-athlete code of conduct. He is eligible but not guaranteed to play Saturday … Backup goalie Mike Spillane is day-to-day with an injury …

Hard game, hard loss for UVM women

January 26, 2010

As college women’s basketball games go, Tuesday evening’s America East confrontation between Hartford and Vermont was a defensive fracas that undermined the offensive confidence on both sides.

Certainly neither offense had a good night, but that was due in large part to the defenses. It was scrappy, it was physical, it was tenacious and the referees were not about to make any brush or phantom calls.

On the Vermont side, the Catamounts found no open 3-point shots and underneath, the Hawks contested every pass, every rebound, every move. And Hartford found the going much the same at the other end of the court.

This was the kind of game that had to be decided by one defense bending just a bit; not breaking, but yielding at just the wrong time. Say, in the final minute or so of regulation.

That’s what happened, according to UVM coach Sharon Dawley, and Vermont was the team that mis-stepped, allowing “three slip-ups that we hadn’t had in the second half and that got us.”

“We gave (Diana) Delva too good of a look down low and I thought we gave ’21’ (Ilicia Mathis) two good drives,” Dawley said of the plays that led to Hartford’s last three baskets, including Delva’s rebound game-winner after Mathis went to the hoop.

Still, UVM nearly pulled out the tie. On an in-bounds from just over mid-court with 1.7 seconds remaining in regulation, Sofia Iwobi threaded a pass through — and off the hands of — a maze of defenders, giving May Kotsopoulis one final chance. Her lay-up bid, though, struck the rim on the way up. Game over.

Bottom line tonight: tough game, great effort, dismal offensive execution and some of the nastiest defense both ways.

The loss, the second of the AE season for UVM, puts the Catamounts in dire straits as far as the regular-season title and top seed for the conference tournament goes. Hartford is unbeaten and UVM must win at Hartford and get help from someone else.

In the long run, it might not matter who’s seeded No. 1. It didn’t last year, but it’s still an easier tournament path as the top seed. That path might now be closed to UVM.

Bits and pieces, part 2 …

January 25, 2010

A few games ago, Vermont women’s basketball coach Sharon Dawley made a point of how senior Courtnay Pilypaitis was effectively distributing the ball among her teammates. As the Catamounts’ all-time assist leader, Pilypaitis has the numbers to back up Dawley’s statement.

Dawley called Pilypaitis’ play selfless, saying Pilypaitis could also score just about any time she wanted.

Fortunately for UVM, Pilypaitis recognized it was time to shoot, not pass, in Sunday’s game against Stony Brook. When the Catamounts were struggling to find their offensive rhythm, Pilypaitis went on the offensive with a drive to the hoop, two 3-pointers — one seemingly launched from Winooski — and a free throw to ignite another easy America East victory.

When Pilypaitis puts on that kind of show, it reminds opposing defenses that she’s far from a one-dimensional player and that opens up other opportunities. Pilypaitis, ready to pass or shoot and knowing when to do each, is a fearsome player, one UVM will need Tuesday against Hartford in the dispute over first place.

The outcome will no doubt be a prime factor in determining the top seed for the AE tournament and thus home court for the championship game.

* * *

The UVM men’s hockey team stayed true to form this weekend: lose the opener, rebound with a stellar game in the rematch. That’s fine; it shows character, but it won’t propel the Catamounts up the Hockey East standings. Only a couple weekend sweeps will do that; like against Maine, which pulls into town Friday.

* * *

How times have changed for UVM’s penalty killers. From allowing three goals in six chances in a home game against UMass and 13 goals in 37 chances over seven games, the Catamounts have a 12-game run in which they are 50-for-53 — 94.3 percent success rate — including Sunday’s 9-for-9 kill against UMass. Sunday’s effort was incredible given that UMass’ James Marcou and Casey Wellman are so dangerous when their team’s a man up; the Cats can attest to that, having yielded five goal to the two in two previous games this year.

Much credit is due the penalty killers, but it’s also due to the resurgence of goaltender Rob Madore, who was spectacular in Sunday’s 3-0 win. Madore missed a couple of days of practice due to a death in the family. Madore’s goals-against average is down to 2.60 and his save percentage is up to 91.0 after yielding two goals this weekend.

* * *

No details of the violation were released, but UVM hockey coach Kevin Sneddon again held a player accountable for actions off the ice. Junior Jack Downing was suspended for three games — he’s now served two — for violation of the university’s student-athlete code of conduct. His seven goals and 15 points could have been helpful against UMass and this Friday against Maine, but violations call for punishment.

* * *

A shocking weekend for the Middlebury College men’s hockey team: First, the Panthers lead New England College 4-2 after the second period Friday and give up five straight goals in the third to lose 7-4. Then St. Anselm pins a 4-0 loss on Middlebury on Saturday. The losses were the Panthers’ first of the league season.

* * *

With two straight league losses after opening the America East season 5-0, the UVM men’s basketball team needs to regain control of its destiny. The Catamounts are fourth in the standings, behind Maine (5-1), Stony Brook (6-2) and Boston University (6-2) going into Wednesday’s game at New Hampshire.

* * *

It’s the fuddy-duddy part of my nature, and colleges, high schools and pro teams feature some remarkable talent when it comes to performing the Star Spangled Banner, but I’m never thrilled with those who add their personal twists to the national anthem, whether it’s by holding high notes forever, taking twice the normal time to perform it or inserting cute little riffs.

For me, the national anthem has a steady, crisp pace and the same melody with no personal variations, no matter who is performing it; to me, anything else is “look at me” exhibitionism. And it’s not about “me” but “us.” Save that personal display for your other performances.

Even more annoying are those who can’t wait until the conclusion to applaud and cheer, or have to yell during it. Yes, that’s freedom of speech, but nothing says it’s mandatory it be exercised at that time. Show a little class and respect.

A Spartan evening

January 22, 2010

Took a sports writer’s holiday Friday evening with the Catamounts off and headed back to the old home town of Rutland to catch my first game at Spartan Arena, home of the Castleton State College hockey teams.

Castleton was playing Hamilton and it was a fun game. Spartans opened a 2-0 lead but Hamilton rallied with one in the second and one with 2:46 left in regulation — just seconds after I told my wife, Linda, “This one has the smell of overtime.”

Sure enough, 2-2 final.

Nice arena; not on the scale of Middlebury’s Chip Kenyon Arena or Norwich’s Kreitzberg Arena, but certainly adequate for the Spartans.

Nice crowd, too.

For the most part, the Spartans played well and they played smart, except for two offensive zone penalties while on the power play. The second was costly, a five-minute major/game misconduct that disrupted CSC’s top line and caused head coach Alex Todd to jerry-rig lines on the fly and seemed to take a little of the zip out of the Spartans’ stride.

Still, it was a good chance to get a first look at Castleton. Todd and the Spartans again seem to have shaken off their early season struggles. With nine freshmen in the lineup Friday, Castleton should be solid in the ECAC East for awhile.

Never would have thought when I started in the business in Rutland some 40 years ago that the old home town would have its own college hockey team, even if the college campus is some 20 miles to the West.

Cats need to strike 1st night, not respond the 2nd

January 22, 2010

No one can question the game-to-game resiliency of the UVM men’s hockey team. The record over the past couple of seasons proves that.

Five times, they’ve lost the opening game of a two-game weekend series against a single opponent and rebounded to win the second game. Only once last year did they lose the opener and then the second game as well. (They’ve also won the opener and lost the second game once.)

The trait is great … except it would be better if the Catamounts didn’t put themselves in that position.

This year, against Denver, Boston College and Northeastern, UVM scored second-night wins for weekend splits. They’re looking for their first sweep, and no sweep is possible without winning the first game.

“I sure hope it’s not a trend,” said UVM coach Kevin Sneddon as the Catamounts prepared for two games at Massachusetts this weekend. “We’re too good a team in my opinion, not just in terms of playing but in terms of what we have in that locker room, for us to be playing that way, to have a bum night on Friday and bounce back.

“Yes, it does show character, but why not play Friday the way you do on Saturday?” he said. “We’ve got to as a coaching staff do whatever we can possibly do to shake that. We need to play one shift at a time and play to the best of our ability period to period versus having a tough outcome and having to come back and rely on our character to respond.

“I want to look at (the first game); that’s two points on the line that we want to go after. Hopefully we’re talking about trying for a sweep the next night,” he said, dismissing talk that a split on the road is a good outcome. “I don’t like to think in those terms. It’s dangerous. We aim to win every game we play. That’s what we set out for. If we’re truly focused on one game at a time, that’s how we should approach it.”

Defenseman Kevan Miller concurred, saying, “We’ve always been good at responding the second game, but we’re trying to come out and play our best hockey for 120 minutes for the weekend instead of 20 minutes off, 10 minutes off here.”

Forward Brayden Irwin said, “We’ve come out where we’ve have a couple of stretches where we play well, one thing goes bad and it kind of turns our whole game. It’s important for us when those situations come up — they’re inevitable — to be able to deal and respond better, not let it turn our whole game plan.

“Now it’s a matter of how we respond the next shift.”

Right answer … now let’s see if the response to this creeping situation is the right one tonight at UMass.

Seawolves bite Catamounts

January 22, 2010

This is not your father’s Stony Brook men’s basketball team.

I remember, when the University of Vermont fell to Stony Brook on Long Island two seasons ago, thinking it was a miserable, embarrassing loss for the Catamounts. Well, UVM’s 65-60 defeat to Stony Brook last night was easier to comprehend, considering the Seawolves have bolstered their talent and are off to their best start since joining the America East in 2001. UVM has a 15-3 edge in its series with Stony Brook.

After winning for the first time at Patrick Gym, third-place Stony Brook (13-7 overall, 5-2 AE) ripped into first-place Vermont’s cushion. The Cats are 5-1  in the league. Maine, which won at Albany last night, is in second place at 4-1.

“It’s very disappointing. We knew what was at stake, we had a chance to be 6-0 and give them a third (league) loss,” UVM coach Mike Lonergan said. “I’m realistic, you are not going to win them all. But you don’t want to lose at home to a team you think you’re going to compete with at the end of the season.”

Vermont went a frightful 16-for-28 from the foul line. Lonergan pointed to another reason the Catamounts had their seven-game winning streak snapped and lost for just the second time in the last 14 games.

“When our guard play is good, we’ve won 12 out of 13,” he said, “and our guard play was very poor tonight. Our best shooters aren’t making open 3’s.”

During UVM’s three-game home stand, the Catamounts went 9-for-42 from 3-point range, 21 percent.

Senior guard Maurice Joseph, UVM’s second-leading scorer and best shooter, is 1-for-13 on 3-pointers the past three games.

*****

Here’s my game story and Tweets and Emily McManamy’s photo gallery from last night’s game. … A Vermont team that has the most road victories in the nation (9), plays at Binghamton on Sunday and at New Hampshire on Wednesday.