Four Minutemen will be taking the Mullins ice for the last time on Saturday night. I’m happy to take the chance to honor them.
▲ #3 Kevin Czepiel ▲
“Holyoke”. Yep, somewhere in his freshman year I kind of gave him that nickname because I love to see Western Mass players on the Minutemen and thought having Czeips on the team should be recognized. Usually having local kids on the team involves kids from the Springfield area. But when Czepiel got to Amherst he was even more local, growing up not too far down I-91 and a former captain at Northfield-Mount Hermon. Czepiel has had a very solid career at UMass, playing over 25 games in all four years. A good puck handler he has been able to move around and fill different roles when needed. At times in his career he played on the top two lines. However he really excelled on the third and fourth lines where he was asked to shut down opposing scorers. He did well doing that but opponents would also have to respect his ability to turn the puck around and make a nice pass to a linemate for a scoring chance.
Czeipiel went out and was a reliable forward no matter what line he ended up on. He played hard. He moved the puck well. And stayed out of the box for the most part. And he was a regular in the faceoff circle. When the season started and the team needed someone to lead them, he and fellow senior Rocco Carzo stepped and ran the practices and were rewarded with the Cs on their chest. The city of Holyoke, a former mill town, can be described as a hard-working, blue collar place. And that’s probably a pretty way to describe Kevin Czepiel’s career at UMass.
▲ #12 Rocco Carzo ▲
Carzo has had an interesting time at UMass. In his freshman year he played on a line with star forwards James Marcou and Casey Wellman and by all accounts did very well in the role. He scored six goals that season, two of them game winners, to go with six assists. His linemates were two of the most prolific scorers in Hockey East that season, with Marcou 4th best in the league with 51 total points and Casey Wellman accumulating the 3rd most goals with 23. Carzo was deservedly named the team’s Rookie of the Year for his contributions. Carzo had some big expectations going into that next season, but with Marcou and Wellman both gone to the pros, they proved tough to live up to. In his sophomore and junior seasons he would end up scoring just three goals total.
Carzo’s path back to becoming an impact player on the squad started in the second half of last year when he was put on the third line with Troy Power and Patrick Kiley. There were times in the last three months of the season when that line contributed the most consistently night in and night out. And Carzo was a big part of that. The resurgence of his career has carried into this year where, as co-captain, he has scored eight goals, 4th best on the team. It hasn’t been the easiest of careers at UMass for Carzo. But I was always impressed that, even when faced with unrealistic expectations, he consistently went out on the ice and gave a great effort, eventually finding the role on the ice that fit him best. I’m glad to see him come full circle and as a senior regain the role of being an integral player on the team.
▲ #16 Eddie Olczyk ▲
Eddie Olczyk’s role was never questioned during his time as a Minuteman. His job as a third or fourth line winger was to go out there and minimize the impact of the opponent’s offensive stars. And he’s done that consistently. UMass has had a number of forwards recently who have been able to regularly make an impact on the outcome of games even while rarely scoring. Brett Watson is perhaps the best example of this. Olczyk followed in Watson’s footsteps in this regard. After playing in 21 games his freshman year his playing time dwindled and he only played half of his sophomore and junior seasons. However I was thankful to see him return to the lineup on a regular basis for his senior year, playing in all the games thus far.
Playing Olcyzk every game has not only helped the defense’s ability to keep the other team off the board, but has had the surprising benefit on offense too. Through his first three seasons he had amassed just one goal, scored halfway through his freshman year. But this year he’s tripled that number to three. Three goals doesn’t seem like a lot in the grand scheme of things, but two of them have been incredibly important. The first came shorthanded in the win over Dartmouth to win the Ledyard Classic, easily the highlight victory of the season. The most recent goal was this past weekend late in Friday’s game against UNH which temporarily gave UMass the go-ahead lead. It’s never easy to be the namesake of a hockey legend that also happens to be your dad. But at UMass Eddie Jr did a good job of making a name for himself as a dependable and hard-working shutdown forward. And he should be proud for that.
▲ #17 Darren Rowe ▲
There was a time last season when most Minuteman fans probably thought they had seen the last of Darren Rowe in a UMass uniform. After playing in 45 games in his first two years on campus Rowe seemed to fall out of favor with then coach Toot Cahoon. In his freshman and sophomore years Rowe played well enough, but never seemed like a natural fit at defense. He seemed to excel in the offensive zone, where he was able to leverage his puck handling skills and dangerous shot. But on the defensive end he seemed to struggle. In the offseason before his junior year I know that I personally advocated for him to move to forward to better take advantage of his natural instincts and strengths on offense. But that didn’t happen. Instead he sat in the stands for a good part of the season. Yet somewhere along the way he was given a chance, made the most of it, and played the last two months of the season last year, though not really on an impactful basis.
Fast forward to this season and perhaps no one has benefitted from the offseason coaching change than Rowe. Just a year and a half after many thought his UMass career was done he has played in all but one game this season. Not surprisingly, it’s been his offensive skills that have gotten him the most attention. And for good reason. UMass does well when Rowe gets on the scoresheet. Of UMass’ 11 wins, 6 have come when Rowe registers a point. In fact the team has a winning record when he does so. He’s had a number of key goals this season as well. He scored a power play goal against Bemidji State in the Ledyard Classic, had three points against Providence in January, and had the overtime winner against #9 New Hampshire in November, one the season’s most memorable wins. Rowe certainly helped add excitement to this season and his resurgance became one of the best storylines on the year.
I didn’t go back to previous years Seniors’ posts, but I’m sure I probably express the same sentiment every year. That is that I have the utmost respect for the guys that pull on the UMass sweater every weekend. College is full of demands and distractions. It can be tough for anyone to make it all the way through and finish their senior year. To juggle the classes, a social life, and then add on an insane amount of games, practices, and all the other time that goes with being a DI athlete is commendable. I honestly don’t know how they do it. But they do and represent the University of Massachusetts well whlie they do it. I love my alma mater and am proud to tout and represent UMass whenever possible in my personal and professional life. But these guys actually go out and represent the students and alumni with “UMass” emblazoned across their chest. And for that they should be recognized.
The last few years have not been fun for UMass fans who no doubt hoped for more wins and better finishes within Hockey East. But imagine what it must feel like for these seniors. No player envisions their senior night coinciding with a fight just to extend their season another weekend or two. I’m sure these guys probably envisioned things turning out much differently when they were ranked 15th in the country in January of their freshman year and the future looked bright. But the team collapsed at the tail end of that season, Marcou, Wellman, and Irwin left, and the program has had a tough time returning to a successful footing since. But not for lack of effort. Let’s remember that these four guys have gone out there and played hard, done their best, and represented Your State U to the best of their abilities. I’ve always thought Senior Nights at Boston College must be a lot of pomp and circumstance as they count the national championships won by their outgoing players and pat themselves on the back but I’ll take the guys who have had to grind it out for every win, every ounce of recognition, and have battled just to dress for games during their career. And that’s pretty much how you have to describe this senior class. Holyoke, Rocco, Eddie, and Darren, thanks for your dedication to Massachusetts hockey.
I know this has been a tough season to follow as a fan. I also understand that the short term prospects for the team are currently working against them. But I would hope that the true UMass hockey fans will do all they can to make it to the Mullins on Saturday, if only to clap and thank these four individuals for wearing the maroon and white. They’ve earned it.
Merrimack will definitely be without defenseman Kyle Bigos on Friday. Should make for an awkward (though fitting?) senior night for the Warriors.