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Living the Tradition

Freshmen Enhance Rensselaer's Excellence

By Erika Lewis

Game Program, November 17, 2001

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's reputation both on the ice and in the classroom has captured the attention of some of the best hockey players in the United States and Canada. This year's freshmen are no different than those in the past. Realizing what being an "Engineer" means, both academically and athletically, all five players decided to follow the "smell of tradition" that has seeped through the walls of RPI, into the city of Troy, and out to millions of hockey fans and some of the top organizations in the world.

Matt McNeely, Blake Pickett, Vic Pereira, C.J. Hanafin, and Nick Economakos are the class of 2005. They bring talent and experience that will make an impact on the Engineer's hockey program throughout this season and the three to follow. Although each has [come] from different backgrounds and experiences, they all have one thing in common; they were sought after by the Rensselaer coaching staff to help keep the Engineer hockey tradition alive.

A native of Almonte, Ontario, McNeely played three seasons with the Kanata Valley Lasers, of the Canadian Junior Hockey League, before coming to RPI this fall. In his inaugural season with the Lasers, he was named Best Defenseman in the CJHL Rookie All Star Game and was an assistant captain during his final year with the team. During his career at Almonte District High School Matt was a standout badminton player and a member of the varsity soccer team for two seasons.

Education, job opportunities and tradition were all factors that influenced Matt's decision to attend RPI. In addition, he was impressed with the coaching staff and with the talent of the players. Although McNeely felt that he would be challenged academically and that it may be difficult to crack the starting line up, he chose to keep an open mind and join a group of, what he sees as "awesome and dedicated players."

Blake Pickett, who is a native of Coto de Caza, California, transferred to Cushing Academy in New England at the start of his sophomore year in high school. While there, he was a standout on the varsity hockey, lacrosse, and football teams for three years.

He helped lead the hockey team to a 36 1 1 record, a New England Prep School Hockey Conference Championship and once earned the team's Most Improved Player Award.

Pickett, who is working his way back from elbow surgery, based his decision to come to Rensselaer on the tradition of its academics, the friendliness of the team, the campus community and the coaching staff. He was also in awe of the team's level of communication and the effect that it had on "how close they were on and off the ice."

Matt McNeely and Blake Pickett are solid defensemen, differing in their approach to the game. McNeely is an offensive minded player while Pickett is more of a stay at-home defenseman.

Both players realize that they lack experience at the college level; however, they feel that their dedication will prevail as they hope to surface as forces on defense. Blake considers himself to be a dedicated player, committed to improving; however, he feels he needs to work on his upper body strength and the "little things" involved in the game. Although McNeely has played in five of the six games and considers himself to be a motivator, he feels that he need to work on his coverage in the defensive zone.

Head coach Dan Fridgen speaks highly of both of these freshmen, saying that McNeely has "good offensive skills, good vision and makes real good reads." Of Pickett, Fridgen boasts about his competitiveness and his "mean streak, which makes him valuable as a defenseman."

On the offensive side of the puck, Pereira, Hanafin, and Economakos bring a variety of skills to the Engineers. Pereira, from Abbotsford, British Columbia, played for the South Surrey Eagles of the British Columbia Junior Hockey League last season. Two seasons prior, while with the Cowichan Valley Capitals, he won the team's Unsung Hero Award, the Academic Achievement Award and the Most Improved Player Award.

Some of the reasons he chose to attend RPI included the campus, education, the tradition of the school and the hockey program. He was impressed with the positive attitudes of the players and the promise of the team's ability. In addition, "He and the coaching staff have a good fit," he said.

Pereira, whose twin brother plays hockey at Nebraska Omaha, realizes this year's RPI lineup to be a "deep team." Understanding his role allows him not to take playing time for granted and pushes him to work on the weaker points of his game.

A native of Burlington, Massachusetts, Hanafin played varsity hockey at Austin Prep for five seasons under former Rensselaer player Bill Flanagan. His career saw him named as a Catholic Central All Star three times, All Scholastic twice, the team's Coach's Award winner twice, named to the Boston Herald "Dream Team," and the Europa Cup Most Valuable Player. C.J. was also a standout lacrosse player at Austin Prep.

Hanafin believes that of all the schools he was recruited by, including Harvard and Union, Rensselaer was the "best school." He based this decision on how good he thought the team would be, losing only one player from last year, as well as the excellence of the program and the coaching staff.

C.J. has high expectations for himself and his classmates, acknowledging that in his first three months here he has "already become a better student and athlete." Considering himself a hard worker, Hanafin is pleased with how things are going for him thus far, admitting that he "needs to learn the ropes."

Economakos, a native of Lockport, Illinois, played two seasons with the Danville Wings, of the North American Hockey League, after graduating from high school. While on the team he was awarded the team's Most Improved Player Award, won the Robertson Cup as NAHL Champions and placed third in the National Tournament in 2000. He was a NAHL Player of the Month nominee once and helped Team Illinois to a third place finish in the USA Hockey Midget Major Nationals in 1999, leading the team in game winning goals. Nick was also a standout infielder on Lockport Township High School's baseball team.

Economakos had a great first impression of Rensselaer, noting the school's tradition, the guys on the team, his fit with the team's future, and the job outlook after graduation as the key reasons why he chose to come play for the Engineers.

Embracing his role on the team he says, "I have worked harder than I have ever worked off the ice," referring to his time with the team's strength and conditioning program. He believes that the key to his ice time is having no expectations, holding true to his work ethic and earning the respect and trust of his teammates and coaches.

These three forwards bring depth to the Engineers lineup and are welcomed additions to the squad. Coach Fridgen believes that by the end of the season the attributes Pereira, Hanafin, and Economakos bring to the team will be evident.

Pereira, a character player who brings size and strength to the Engineers, will "go to the wall for [his teammates]," Fridges said. "He keeps players honest in practice. Vic is a key and a big part of our practices."

Of C.J., the eighth year head coach says that "he moves the puck well in tight quarters, has quick hands and has improved his foot speed." Hanafin, who considers himself a competitor, has good size and skills for the high traffic areas.

Economakos is a two way player who brings speed to the team. He says that he is "willing to do whatever helps the team." "Nick is a universal player with real good speed," said Fridges.

All five freshmen, each of whom have been strongly influenced by their families, are excited about this season and their future here at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. They are encouraged by the closeness that the team shares on and off the ice and the positive outlook that the players have.

Although the team has started off the season with a 2-4-0 start, McNeely, Pickett, Pereira, Hanafin, and Economakos all believe that it is not indicative of the talent and quality of their team. According to the head coach, each of these newcomers are improving everyday and they believe in their team.

All five freshmen are convinced that if the team works on the problems they have encountered thus far, they can climb to the top of the ECAC standings and make it to the NCAA Tournament. Certainly they are willing to do whatever it takes.

"As a player, you want it to be hard for the coaches to keep you out of the lineup," Pereira said. These freshmen remain true to this ethical ideal in their efforts as hockey players and as students here at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. After all, McNeely, Pickett, Pereira, Hanafin and Economakos are determined to carry on the tradition that they sought when choosing this institution.