Time flies during your first year of college.
One moment you show up, a stranger to your surroundings, and the next you’re navigating the campus with ease, even in a drunken state.
On that note, the recent performances from several of the freshman members of the University of Maine men’s hockey team should come as no surprise.
Since losing 6-2 at Merrimack College in mid-January, the Black Bears have gone 4-0-1 with all four wins coming against top-five teams.
And coinciding with their latest unbeaten streak is the involvement of a group of freshmen that has given the Black Bears substantial secondary options.
After the drubbing by the Warriors, UMaine head coach Tim Whitehead altered the lines, putting freshman forward Stu Higgins on the second line with junior forward Matt Mangene and sophomore forward Mark Anthoine, while teaming freshmen forwards John Parker and Connor Leen on the third line with sophomore center Jon Swavely. Freshman defender Jake Rutt has also taken a more prominent role on the defensive side of the puck.
“Your typical college freshman doesn’t become an impact player until their junior or senior year,” Whitehead said. “I think it’s just a maturation process that takes time. It’s great when your freshmen can rise up and be significant contributors in the second half of their freshman season.”
One of those four freshmen has recorded a point in each of the five contests since the line change.
Rutt assisted on the go-ahead goal in the 2-2 tie against the Warriors for his first collegiate point; Parker picked up his first assist on a Black Bears goal in their 4-3 win over Boston College; Leen scored his first collegiate goal in game-winning fashion when UMaine completed the sweep of BC, while Higgins assisted on an earlier goal in the contest; and Parker scored in each game of the the Black Bears’ recent weekend sweep of Boston University.
“I’m coming into my own, starting to adjust to the physicality,” Parker said of his three points in the last four games. “It’s getting a little bit easier.”
Rutt agreed with Parker, adding the game has slowed down for him over the course of the season.
“You have more poise with the puck. You don’t think someone is right on you, you trust your game and your skills,” he said. “It’s slowing down, you’re more comfortable out there.”
When Whitehead shuffled the lines, the freshmen understood what their new roles were.
“I think he just wanted to shake things up,” Rutt said. “In Merrimack we came out a little flat, and Coach wanted to spice things up.”
“I think most importantly is our energy,” Higgins said. “At Merrimack, Parker led our team in hits. It’s things like that, which add up.”
Rutt said the team bought into the idea that they’d sweep BC and BU.
“That was the goal. We’re pleased with the outcomes, but we didn’t doubt ourselves,” Rutt said. “We’ve had some good games against top teams and didn’t come out with the win. So we buckled down and did the small things.”
Going forward, it seems the freshmen will continue to develop in their roles and provide more support for a team that was top-heavy for the majority of the season.
“We have a lot of depth right now,” Higgins said. “We have specific roles but we’re trying to further ourselves every day.”
“I’m just trying to focus on taking more shots, being the forward high,” Parker said. “Pucks are coming up there and it’s good getting a couple shots.”
Leen mentioned the complimenting that occurs on his line with Parker and Swavely.
“Swavely’s a great center, he’s always skating and is very defensively aware,” he said. “Parker and I do a good job of getting the puck out, and when we get on our horse and race for the puck we have very good speed. It’s contributing to our offense a lot.”