Opening a season against your biggest rival is usually a great way to test a team’s character. The Owls began the season against two of theirs.
The ice hockey team had come up big in their last three championship games against Saint Joseph’s, but the Hawks thoroughly outplayed the Owls in the championship game of the Fifth Annual Liberty Bell Classic on Sunday. The Owls lost to the Hawks, 4-2, a day after the Cherry and White had dominated cross-city foe Penn, 7-4.
Forward Jeff Ebert got the Owls an early lead by finishing a perfectly set up pass from forward Mike Roeding via Chris Mariello for his second goal in as many games. The Owls controlled the puck and played the majority of the first period in the St. Joe’s zone. Shortly after a Hawks second period goal tied the game at one apiece, captain Shawn Lynch put the Owls back ahead. The lead would not last for long, as St. Joe’s scored three more goals over the final 28 minutes.
When it comes to big games against St. Joe’s, the Owls have had the Hawks’ number recently. Pitted against their rivals in the last three Delaware Valley Collegiate Hockey Conference (DVCHC) finals, the Owls won all three series.
Second-year coach Jamie Sabbatini said he was disappointed in his players’ performance on Sunday night, but said that his team has great leaders and he still retains the high hopes he had coming into the season.
“They weren’t as aggressive as I would have liked,” Sabbatini said. “We didn’t look too good out there. We made some mental mistakes and our passing game was sloppy. In the five years that I have coached hockey this is definitely the best group of captains that I have been around.”
Sabbatini pointed to the leadership abilities of Lynch and Mariello, Jerry Roberts and Jeff Pelus. Pelus, the reigning DVCHC player of the year, has been the team’s Most Valuable Player the past two seasons and was joined by Eric O’Neill, Rob Hughes and Mariello in the DVCHC All-Star Game last season.
Seeking better competition and a more rewarding playoff system, both Temple and St. Joe’s, which are club programs, moved from the DVCHC to the Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Hockey Association this year.
The MACHA is a larger conference with a much deeper pool of talent. It would be the equivalent of the men’s basketball program moving from the A-10 to the Big East, according to Roberts.
“It’s a more competitive league. A lot of the teams [in the MACHA] are nationally ranked and Wagner finished the season ranked No. 4 in the country last season,” Sabbatini said. “After winning three DVCHC championships in a row, we wanted to raise the bar a little bit, and this was the next step.”
Even with the conference switch, the Owls expect to continue the success they have enjoyed over the past few seasons. Home-and-home series are on tap against talented Princeton and Wagner. Princeton has an NCAA Division I varsity program that allows players who were cut from their varsity team to play on the club level.
The change of conferences has forced the players to take a more serious approach to the season, Roberts said.
“We are not going to blow teams out of the water this year like we have in the past,” Roberts said. “This is one of the top conferences in America, and you can tell that with guys spending more time in the gym, that they are dedicated to taking on the new challenge.”
In the first game of the Liberty Bell Classic, the Owls beat Penn, 7-4. Goalie Jason Walker denied 20 Quaker shots en route to the Owls’ first win. Pelus added two goals and an assist in the winning cause.
The first true test of the season comes Saturday, Oct. 1. The Owls travel to the Staten Island Pavilion in New York to take on nationally-ranked Wagner.
Kevin Maloney can be reached at Kevmaloney33@yahoo.com