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Fresh Start for RPI Opponent

Merrimack Relying on Freshmen to Prove Critics Incorrect

By Ed Weaver

Troy Record, December 28, 2002

TROY - Not much was expected this hockey season from Merrimack College among Hockey East followers.

Conference coaches picked the Warriors to finish next-to-last - 10th place - in the league.

"Eleven freshmen, in that conference - no way," was the theme.

Well, while the rookie-laden Warriors aren't atop the Hockey East standings, they're doing all right at 4-3-1.

The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Engineers may see some of themselves in the Warriors when the two teams clash tonight at Houston Field House.

They'll meet in the second game of the Rensselaer Holiday Tournament at 7 p.m.

Wayne State (5-10-0) and Princeton (1-13-0) clash in the 4 p.m. opener.

Merrimack, 5-6-3 overall, has been hot of late, losing just one of its last five games (3-1-1). The Warriors are coming off a 2-1 overtime victory over Providence and a 1-0 blanking of Northeastern in their past two outings. It could be said that Merrimack has dropped Providence from national polls, having beaten the Friars twice.

Merrimack coach Chris Serino and his staff were quietly optimistic in preseason but thought 2002-03 would definitely be a rebuilding year. That rebuilding has taken place quickly.

Seven of those 11 freshmen are lineup fixtures and four of the Warriors top five scorers are first-year players.

Freshman left winger Brent Gough (4 goals-5 assists-9 points) is the leading scorer, while freshman defensemen Matt Johnson (5-3-8) and Bryan Schmidt (1-7-8) are tied for second with junior winger Tim Reidy (5-3-8).

Freshman right winger Nick Pompino (4-3-7) is tied for fifth.

"Our freshmen have played exceptionally well and developed quickly," Serino said. "They give us plenty of excitement about our future."

Serino gives almost equal credit for the freshmen's big contributions to upperclassmen, however.

"Our freshman players have done a great job and this is a credit to our upperclassmen," he said. "They have allowed these young players to develop without jealousy, just encouragement. Our captains (Exter, Nick Cammarata, Luke Smith, Marco Rosa) have made a commitment to make us a team no matter how young we are, and they have."

Meanwhile, RPI's top two scorers - winger Kevin Croxton (6-9-15) and defenseman Brad Farynuk (2-9-11) are freshmen. The Engineers roster contains eight freshmen and most are in the lineup on a nightly basis.

"We're similar teams," Rensselaer coach Dan Fridgen said of the Merrimack-RPI matchup. "We both have young guys who've had to step in right away and we both have counted on the veterans to help with that transition."

None of the teams in the event has a winning record and a return to league play is over a week away for each.

The tournament promises to be a fun-time one, with little pressure on the teams.

"These guys are relaxed after being home for Christmas," Fridgen said. "They're relaxed. And we're getting back to athletics (after midterm exams).

"We've finished the academics well," Fridgen said. "We've got 15 guys on the dean's list. Now all they have to concentrate on is nothing but hockey for a couple of weeks."

Fridgen says he believes that "our best hockey is ahead of us as we gain confidence with the system.

"We're going to use the tournament as a springboard to the second half of our season," he said.

NOTES: The Engineers will again be without sophomore defenseman Matt McNeely, who's out with an ankle injury. ... Princeton is back from a trip to England. "We're glad to be back on North American soil," coach Les Quesnelle said. ... Wayne State coach Bill Wilkinson scored his first two collegiate goals (for St. Lawrence) at Houston Field House. ... Merrimack coach Chris Serino had the joke of the night at Friday's tournament banquet when he said that his team got into the tournament "by accident. I was down at Naples, Fla. (at the coaches meeting) and I ran into (Fridgen) by the pool. He had had a few 'milk shakes'. I said 'Danny, what about your tournament?' He said, 'sure, Red, I'd love to have Michigan in the tournament.' We signed the next day."