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Engineers Hoping Youthful Group of Defensemen Will Mature Quickly

By Ken Schott

Schenectady Daily Gazette, October 5, 2006

TROY - There are some intriguing storylines woven into the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute hockey team this season.

For starters, there is a new coach. Former Denver University assistant Seth Appert was hired as the Engineers' 12th head coach on April 19, replacing Dan Fridgen, who resigned a month earlier. And then there is the return of senior forward Kirk MacDonald, who missed last season while recovering from testicular cancer.

But the biggest story for the Engineers, and what will probably determine their success, is how well their young defensive corps develops.

RPI, which plays an exhibition game Saturday against York University before opening the season Oct. 14 as host to fourth-ranked Boston University, is very young on defense. Six of the eight blue liners are underclassmen. Five of those underclassmen are freshmen - Erik Burgdoerfer, Jason Fortino, Christian Jensen, Peter Merth and Garett Vassel. There are only two seniors - Jake Luthi and Ryan Swanson. The other returning defenseman is sophomore Reed Kipp.

The Engineers graduated four defensemen, so Appert knows he will have to be patient with his young blue liners.

"Experience doesn't happen overnight," Appert said. "You can't buy experience. You can't replace four senior defensemen just by running four new guys in there. It doesn't matter if the new kids are talented or not. That's probably one of the toughest positions, if not the toughest position, in college hockey to come in as a newcomer. We know we're going to have some growing pains."

"I like what we're seeing out of our young defensemen right now. They're really buying in. They're working on a lot of things we've asked them to work on in some of the individual skill stuff we're doing."

The bulk of RPI's returnees are forwards, so Appert is counting on them to help the defense.

"We've got a veteran group of forwards," Appert said. "And, really, the pressure's on them, not on our young defensemen. Let's not rely on four or five freshmen back there, let's put the onus on our upperclassmen forwards to set the tone for how we want to play, to help out with their backchecking and defensive effort."

But the forwards won't have to solely concentrate on being defensive-minded. During his introductory press conference, Appert said he would bring an up-tempo style to the Engineers.

"We're definitely going to try to be an offensive-minded team, without question," Appert said. "We're going to give our players opportunities to make plays, and to try to make plays. Now, they also have to make those plays to make this an offensive team. But those freedoms will be there, and I think that will help our young defensemen. If we sat back and played a real defensive-minded style, you spend more time in your d-zone. The more time you spend in your defensive zone with three, four or five freshmen playing, the more opportunities you have for breakdown."

The Engineers have some quality scorers coming back. Senior Oren Eizenman was the team's secondleading scorer with 16 goals and 22 assists. Junior Jonathan Ornelas got off to a hot start before cooling off in the second half. He finished third in team scoring with 13 goals and nine assists.

Then there is MacDonald. He led the team in scoring in 2003-04 and 2004-05. After overcoming his cancer and subsequent infections that hospitalized him for three months, MacDonald looks fit and trim, and ready to resume his career.

"I'm really excited to get back here, and be back and just get it going," MacDonald said. "It's been a long ways to get back to this point."

Appert likes his forwards, but he knows the team can't succeed having just three players contribute.

"Ornelas, Eizenman and Mac-Donald have an ability to be three of the top 10, top 15 scorers in the ECAC," Appert said. "After those three, we have a lot of guys who are very good players [like] Kurt Colling, Matt Angers-Goulet, Andrew Lord and Jake Morissette. Now, the question will be, can they go from being good support guys in that 10- to 15-point range to being more reliable offensive producers and being in that 20- to 25-point range."

Appert doesn't have to worry about goaltending.

Sophomore Mathias Lange established himself as the Engineers' top goalie last season. He posted a 13-15-6 record with a 2.70 goals against average, a .901 save percentage and two shutouts. He was a unanimous selection to the ECACHL All-Rookie team.

"Without goaltending, you're nothing," Appert said. "It's a position you have to have, no matter what kind of team you are. Yeah, there will be pressure on our goaltenders, but I don't think there's any more pressure on our goaltenders than there is on anybody else's goaltenders in college hockey. If you get 91 or 92 [save] percent goaltending, you have a great opportunity to be in the top 15 in the country. If you don't get 91 or 92 percent goaltending, you probably aren't going to be in the top 15 in the country."

"Having Mathias, especially coming off a successful freshman season, is a little bit of a boost to us. What he does, with not only his play but his demeanor, he gives our players confidence."

At age 32, Appert is the youngest coach in the ECACHL. He has an unlimited abundance of enthusiasm. As his first year approaches, Appert knows it is his job to get RPI's program back to prominence after it suffered three losing seasons in the last four years.

"It's very exciting," Appert said. "I'm trying not to think about what's out there in the next few weeks. You're not trying to think about Boston University and in what lies ahead in terms of the league schedule and [the Governor's Cup] tournament. You're just trying to focus on the day-to-day things, and trying to get our team better and create the culture and attitude that we want in our locker room. But it is exciting right now as it's starting to inch forward."