The yearly cycle of replacing the skaters and goalies who graduated the year before is a constant for the Fairfield Prep boys ice hockey team. But so is the realistic goal of adding another Division I state championship remaining firmly ensconced.
The Jesuits won the 2012-13 state title last March over Notre Dame-West Haven. And when the ice melts on this season at Yale's Ingalls Rink, Prep would like to be the ones holding aloft yet another champonship trophy, which would be their 16th.
Key players are gone from Prep's 23-1 champions of a year ago, but an ample number of talented and experienced players return as well. And adding to the Jesuits' strength on the ice is the likelihood that veteran coach Matt Sather and his staff will develop a fair share of newcomers who can live up to the expectations of their accustomed high level of performance.
It has been a winning combination in the past, and 2013-14 ought to be no different.
"I think we're certainly good enough to compete for a state title," Sather said Monday night after the first practice of the season. "Whether we're able to get to the level we've been in in the past, the ability and motivation are there.
"A lot of work is going to have to go on this year," said Sather, with eighth state titles on his resume, beginning his 15th season with a career record of 235-82-12. He is 196-38-10 against state teams in that span.
On championship day, since Prep's first final in 1977, a 4-3 victory over Cheshire for the Division II title, the Jesuits have gone 15-3. Their eight finals appearances from 1995 through 2008 all ended up in Div. I championships. Their recent past has featured a 2010 loss to Hamden, followed by state titles in 2011 and 2013.
Nine big-time players graduated in June. Combined, they had 71 goals and 123 assists, and that's among four forwards and five defensemen. The 14 players who are back, including the three goalies, netted 57 goals and 58 assists. Eight of them are seniors.
The leading scorers who return are seniors Matt Wickman, who contributed 18 goals and 11 assists last year, and Dean Lockery, who had 14 goals and 14 assists a year ago. Senior Kenny Kochiss had eight goals and nine assists and junior Mike Ventriccelli supplied seven goals and 10 assists.
Chris Gutierrrez went 10-0 in goal in 2012-13 as a junior, with a .924 save percentage and a 1.49 goals against average. Senior Matt Beck was 10-1 with a .929 save percentage and a 1.76 GAA. Junior Jack Taubl, in limited action, went 3-0 with a 0.88 goals against average while stopping .959 of the shots he faced.
Other players back include senior forward Matt McKinney, senior defenseman Steven Bayles, junior forwards Brandon Powell, Jack Quinn and Ryan Deering and junior defensemen Bryan Connell and Brendan Killoy.
Prep plays an ambitious schedule featuring six games against out-of-state schools. There's a tournament in Rhode Island around Christmastime, as well as games against strong teams from Rhode Island, New Jersey and Western Massachusetts.
"You're going to have a really hard time putting in a great record year in and year out, but when you do that, you are better prepared for the physicality and pace of going deep into the (state) tournament," Sather said of Prep's top-flight schedule.
The competition in the SCC is the best among any league or conference in the state, and that helps Prep for the state playoffs, Sather said. A key this winter will be building the team's confidence, too, and that can happen from becoming battle-tested, Sather said.
"When that happens, good things can happen in the tournament," Sather said.