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RPI Has Developed Chemistry

By Mike Kane

Schenectady Daily Gazette, February 20, 2004

TROY - With a wave of his hand, Dan Fridgen acknowledges and dismisses the mountain of clutter residing on the desk in his office at Houston Field House.

"Iíve kind of let the administrative stuff go lately," he said with a shrug and a laugh. "Iíve been too busy looking at tapes and coaching."

Fridgen was not apologizing. The mail will just have to wait while Fridgen and his RPI hockey team deal with more important matters in the final weeks of this surprising and satisfying season. By then, there might be a couple of peaks to deal with.

No problem. Itís a welcome change from last winter, when cleaning the desk was a welcome diversion.

Twelve months ago, the Engineers were putting the finishing touches on a dreadful 12-25-3 record, the worst in Fridgenís nine years as the head coach. RPI won a total of four league games and endured a stretch of seven straight losses and nine games without a victory.

Presto chango, they enter tonightís home game against Cornell with a 17-11-2 record, tied with the Big Red for third place in the ECAC and in contention for the regular-season title.

Thatís a long way from the preseason forecast that said the Engineers were likely to repeat last seasonís league finish: 11th of 12 ECAC teams.

Fridgen insists that he did not use the poll to motivate his team.

"Put it this way," he said, "itís around our locker room."

During the first 18 games, though, the Engineers were improved, but hardly looked like a team ready to climb through the standings. On Dec. 29, they were 8-7-2, had lost four of their last five games, and were last in their own tournament.

Since a 1-0 loss at home to Brown on Jan. 2, the Engineers have put together a 9-3 record that has assured a winning season and thrust them into contention. A ridiculously effective power play and strong work by goaltender Nathan Marsters have been the fuel for the surge, but Fridgen credits something that statisticians cannot count as the foundation for the turnaround.

"Yeah, itís been a 180, but I think thatís a tribute that weíre getting good leadership out of the senior class," he said.

Yikes. Fridgen, who has been diligently working at moving beyond cliches while talking with the media, had summoned up a line from Coachspeak 101. I was sure my eyes would start glazing over.

Fridgen didnít stop with what could have been a throwaway compliment like, "Theyíre a well-coached team." Using an anecdote, he explained how senior captains Scott Basiuk and Ben Barr have emerged as powerful influences in the locker room.

Leaning forward and speaking softly, Fridgen told how he had inadvertently overheard Basiukís blistering speech to his teammates between the second and third periods of the home game against Clarkson on Feb. 7.

"No one said a word while he was talking," Fridgen said, smiling as he spoke. "Nothing. There was silence in the room."

In the third period, the Engineers wiped away a 2-1 deficit with two goals on the power play and one into an empty net. Barr assisted on the first power-play goal and scored the other.

Last weekend, Basiuk scored two goals in a victory at Harvard and one in a win over league-leading Brown.

Itís easy to surmise that the fall-off last season was connected to the departure of RPIís two most productive forwards, Matt Murley and Marc Cavosie. Murley had completed his eligibility, but Cavosie left school a year early to turn pro.

Fridgenís young and inexperienced club that struggled through last season has matured and developed into a very capable, balanced team. It is possible that Fridgen could have his fifth 20-win season at the school.

Leaning back in his chair, Fridgen makes the point, once, twice, three times, at least, about this RPI teamís success isnít just about talent and effective strategy. He said it has everything to do with something he cannot produce and can only hope for from players like Basiuk and Barr: chemistry.

"You can say the coach is the leader, and, yeah, the coach is the leader, but you also need somebody in the locker room," he said "You need everybody in the locker, for each other."