30 in 30: Is Clarkson Ready to be a Liberty Power?
|Defense has always been the
Knights strong suit, and will be again in 2013 with senior Ryan
Cole (above) patrolling the crease.
© Chris Lenney
Just prior to RIT's transition to the Liberty League from the Empire 8 in 2012, Tigers head coach Jake Coon was asked about what he thought the big challenges would be in his new conference.
He could have talked about Union, which had just won the Liberty and made an impressive run in the NCAAs. Coon could have brought up St. Lawrence, a team that had owned the Liberty for much of its existence. He had the option of pinpointing RPI, which took his team to overtime just the season before.
Who did Coon actually highlight?
Vivid in Coon's memory was the 2011 game when the Tigers traveled to Potsdam, N.Y., to play the Golden Knights and barely survived.
"They were stomping us," said Coon, who watched as Clarkson held a three-goal lead midway through the third quarter before his team rallied for a 12-10 victory. "We couldn't do anything right, and they were just pouring it on. We ended up coming back to win, but it was not an easy contest."
Coon's recollection is almost the perfect encapsulation of the Knights over the past two years. They are a program to be feared when they show up on the schedule, but they always seem to come up just short of a signature win.
In addition to the RIT loss in '11, there was a pair of losses to Union by a combined three goals. Last year, it was even more evident. Clarkson lost to RIT by two goals, Union by three and St. Lawrence by one – all three of the defeats against ranked teams. In a late-season non-conference tilt against No. 2 Cortland, the Knights hit the crossbar with just over two minutes left trailing by a goal, eventually falling by two markers.
"I don't think we're very far off," said head coach Bill Bergen, who has been at the helm of Clarkson for a quarter century. "We've just got to catch a couple of breaks and do a couple of things differently to get us over the top."
What's the difference between winning and losing the close games? There are a lot of coaches who would like to know the answer to that, but as far as Bergen is concerned, it's on him.
"If you lose one-goal games, there was something that the coach could have done to change that," he said. "I put the onus on myself. Other coaches might not believe that, but that's my feeling. There are things that we're looking at that we need to change from a coaching perspective, and hopefully that helps out in the future."
Players appreciate it when coaches point the finger at themselves, but Matt McCabe isn't buying it. McCabe, a senior midfielder out of Syracuse (West Genesee), said the difference in the tight contests rests with the personnel inside the lines.
"The guys on the field are who are controlling the game and sometimes we kill ourselves," McCabe said. "We make stupid mistakes. I don't think Coach Bergen puts us in bad spots; we put ourselves in bad spots here and there. This year, we are going to take control of that and control the tempo of the game and how it is going to be played. That's going to be one of our strengths."
McCabe believes that a nine-man senior class that has been through the wars will prove pivotal when the Knights find themselves in the close contests. As a member of that group of seniors, McCabe plans on taking an active role in keeping everyone on the same page.
"We need to play with more of a sense of urgency," he said. "We had some young guys last year who just came out there to not lose. They weren't necessarily trying to win. They were getting complacent and not keeping the pedal down to pull out the close wins. We're going to change that and dictate this year."
Bergen likes the attitude, but knows that finding an NCAA berth in the Liberty, which is once again stacked, will be more than a state of mind.
"I think there's some confidence, but we're pretty quick to let them understand that there is a lot of things we need to do to be successful and we're not there yet," Bergen. "They have kind of a quiet type of confidence."
Defense will once again be Clarkson's strong suit. The Knights allowed just four teams to crack double-digits in 2012, bolstered by a pair of outstanding goalies. Senior Ryan Cole (7.75 GAA; 58.7 sv%) earned the bulk of the minutes in net, but classmate Pat Briggs is expected to push for quality time, as well. Junior poles Brian Freeland and Rick Clement started every game last year, raising expectations on the backline.
"Defensively, if we hold teams to single digits, which is our goal, we should be able to beat them," Bergen said. "If we don't, that's on the offense and that's what we talk about. They're well aware."
The offense is loaded with returners like McCabe (12g, 15a), senior attackman Brendon Shearin (26, 3a) and sophomore Corey Herrington (20g, 22a).
"We've already had a team meeting and we've already gone over what our goals are," McCabe said. "We want to keep teams under 10 goals and we want to make sure we score at least 10. If we can do that, we have as good a chance as anyone to win the Liberty League."
A conference champion and the program's first tourney berth since 2004 could transform the Knights from the team that no one wants to see to the team to beat.