Sitting in first place in the Atlantic Conference, Sacred Heart Pioneers have made their mark in college hockey this season, cracking the USCHO Top 20 poll for the first time in the program's history.
A new decade feels like a new beginning for this program. It hasn't been smooth sailing up to this point for Sacred Heart, which is the only Connecticut team to be nationally ranked this season.
The team started as a Division III program before the MAAC was formed as a Division I hockey conference. MAAC ice hockey folded after the 2002-03 season and the following season the remaining nine MAAC ice hockey programs formed Atlantic Hockey.
Sacred Heart reached the Atlantic Hockey championship in 2004 and 2010. Current head coach C.J. Marottolo took over in 2009, and the Atlantic Hockey Association named Marottolo "Bauer Coach of the Year" for the 2009-10 season. Since then, the Pioneers have struggled, never finishing higher than eighth in Atlantic Hockey from 2011-2018.
The 2018-19 Pioneers took a step in the right direction, finishing fourth in Atlantic Hockey. This season, Sacred Heart currently leads Army by two points for first place in Atlantic Hockey, with a 14-7-1 record heading into their series with Canisius on Friday. Sacred Heart is aiming for its first-ever Atlantic Hockey title.
"It's a work in progress," Marottolo reiterated. "We didn't lose too many guys up front, but the lines that we returned from last year got stale, so to speak. We tinkered and found chemistry within the group that we have. We feel our depth is our greatest strength, and the guys find a way to create their own identity on each line. Each line has a guy that can score, another guy who can go get the puck, and a guy who can make a play."
Sacred Heart's depth is solidified by Mike Lee, Jason Cotton, and Austin McIlmurray. They make up four of the five Atlantic Hockey leaders in points. Sacred Heart has seven players in the top 10, while no other conference team has more than one.
Cotton leads Atlantic Hockey in points and just barely comes in second to Lee in goals per game at 1.09. The senior forward transferred from Northeastern in 2016, and has since recorded 66 points in 98 games for Sacred Heart. This past summer, Cotton was invited to the New York Islanders' prospect development camp, being the first ever Pioneer to attend an NHL development camp. It's safe to say the transfer has worked out for both sides.
"I was young and I thought it would be better to have a change and go somewhere where I could not only play in situations, but fail and learn from my failures," Cotton said. "That's ultimately how you grow as a player."
Cotton isn't the only transfer making an impact for Sacred Heart. Atlantic Hockey's assists leader, Lee, transferred from Vermont in 2017. The senior defenseman has 24 points in 21 games. Last season, Lee had 19 points in 35 games. Lee is a Hamden, Conn. native, which is home to the Quinnipiac Bobcats -- a potential Connecticut Ice championship matchup, should both teams advance.
In goal, the Pioneers are led by December Atlantic Hockey Goalie of the Month, Josh Benson. The sophomore is in the top five in every Atlantic Hockey goalie statistic. Last year, Benson was second in the conference in save percentage and goals-against average, and first in winning percentage. He was named Atlantic Hockey's Goalie of the Week twice.
Sacred Heart has a boatload of talent, but the knock against the Pioneers is that they play in a second-fiddle conference. However, this season Sacred Heart tied UConn and defeated Boston University, showing it can hang with some tougher programs in the country.
Sacred Heart will be tested again on Jan. 25 against Yale. Yale, an ECAC Hockey team, comes from one of the top conferences in the nation (though Yale is toward the bottom of their standings).