Morning Jac: Eastern Conn.'s Five-Year Itch
Eastern Connecticut State is no stranger to the NCAA tournament, having made eight total appearances, including in each of the past two seasons. But only once in those trips have the Warriors picked up a win, and that was back in 2009 when EConn defeated Merchant Marine in the first round before bowing to Wesleyan in the second, finishing with a 15-4 record.
That particular squad was stacked with great leaders and outstanding talent. One game into this season, Warriors head coach Justin Axel sees some promising similarities with this year's edition.
"I think this team has the potential to be the same category as the 2009 group that made it to the Sweet 16," he said. "I say they have the potential, because they have to do it each and every game. I certainly like the way we started and we have to stay healthy and focused. They are doing a really good job."
EConn opened the season with a 21-4 dismantling of New England College in the opener, but the Warriors are now about to enter a stretch of six non-conference games that will determine just how good this version is. It includes No. 19 Endicott this Saturday and No. 4 Cortland on March 15, and starts tomorrow with Babson.
"We've done this each of the last several years," Axel said. "It's a tough stretch, but I think it really kind of – I don't want to say exploits our weaknesses – but it shows us where we're at. It shows us what we need to do improve and get ready for May. If we can win some of these games in March, I think that can help us get to the national level."
The Warriors didn't hold up very well during this skein last spring. They started the season 1-5 and entered the bulk of the Little East schedule with a 3-7 mark. It had gotten to the point where Axel needed to make sure his team was in the right place mentally.
"There was a little bit of concern, but I kept on preaching to our guys, 'Listen, stay the course. Keep working together. We've done this in the past and we're going to do this again,'" Axel said. "To the team's credit, they rallied and kept fighting. It really showed me as a coach how tough my athletes are. If that happens to be that same result this year, I know we are OK because we've been through that adversity."
EConn managed to shake off the early struggles and knock off Little East top seed – and blood rival – Keene State for the automatic ticket to the NCAA tournament last spring despite a 10-7 record. They'll have to get through the Owls again if they want to make the dance, but this Warriors team is much deeper than last year with a lot of grizzled upperclassmen.
Nine of the top scorers return, led by the three-headed senior monster of Mike Devine, Tyler Fressen and Mike Jordan, and the defense and goalie unit return nearly intact. Devine and Fressen work out of the midfield and Jordan roams on attack, and the three combined for 114 goals and 64 assists last year. The trio, which complements each other extremely well teamed up for 10 points (5g, 5a) in the NEC romp.
"This is a real veteran group and the guys who have been scoring all the points for us have been playing for three or four years," Axel said. "They are hungry and they want to end their senior year on a good note."
If they do, they may match the feats of 2009. Or perhaps exceed them.