RIT's Saracino hopes final act is his best
by Allen Lessels/Correspondent
Chris Saracino, an RIT senior defenseman who has seen much in his four years with the Tigers, likes the view much better this time around than last.
A couple of injuries, starting with a concussion in a season-opening 0-0 tie against Niagara, cost Saracino most of last season. He got to play only 14 games, had to work his way through some scary health issues and, instead of the excitement of participating in playoff hockey in March, had to deal with neck surgery. He wasn’t all that happy about it.
“Pretty much, the hardest part was I was honored that the team had voted me captain, and then in the first game I come in and get hurt,” Saracino said. “I come back and thought I played a pretty decent 14 games and then I’m out again. I couldn’t help the team. I didn’t get a chance to prove myself as captain.”
Not to worry. He’s a captain again, the team’s leading scorer, making up for lost time and helping to lead the Tigers (8-11-5, 6-7-4 Atlantic Hockey) back from a rough start, toward the Atlantic Hockey playoffs and — hopefully — beyond.
“It’s been great to have him back,” said RIT coach Wayne Wilson. “He’s been through a lot. He’s been to the Frozen Four and he’s been without hockey for a year. He has a good appreciation for things and a good perspective.”
Saracino was a freshman on the 2010 RIT team that knocked off Sacred Heart in the league’s championship game and then went to Albany, N.Y., for the NCAA Regionals, where it stunned Denver and then New Hampshire to become the first Atlantic team to advance to the Frozen Four. Against UNH, he had an assist on Brent Alexin’s game-winning goal.
His sophomore year, the Tigers lost to Air Force, 1-0, in the league title game, and last year, with Saracino sidelined and awaiting surgery, RIT fell to the Falcons in the title game again.
Now, Saracino and his teammates, including senior forward Jeff Smith and juniors Greg Noyes, a defenseman, and Josh Watson, the goalie, are getting the Tigers prepped for another playoff push. It’s shaping up as another wild race to the league finish with first-round byes and home playoff games on the line.
“I think we thought before that there were eight teams that were real tight in the standings and now that’s grown to 10 teams,” Wilson said. “Everyone is in the mix.”
As February began, just six points separated the second- and 10th-place teams in the standings, and the top five teams of that cluster were within three points. “It’s going to be one heck of a stretch run,” Wilson said.
And that’s just the prelude to the Atlantic Hockey tournament that Wilson calls the best in all of college hockey. “I think of all the leagues, we have the most exciting playoffs because the winner moves on,” Wilson said. “Playoffs in the other leagues, I don’t want to say they’re useless, but there’s not a lot at stake in the league playoffs for a lot of teams if they’re up there in the power rankings.”
It’s not the way Wilson and the other coaches want it, but theirs is pretty much a one-bid league when it comes to the NCAAs. A team like Niagara this year will have a shot at getting an at-large bid to the NCAAs, but historically an Atlantic team has had to win its tournament to make the national event. That puts all the pressure on the league tournament, right from the start of it.
“You’re guaranteed when you go to the Atlantic Hockey playoffs, you’re going to see everybody all in,” Wilson said. “I think that’s the way it should be. We’re all playing for position during the regular season and once that’s done, you better be focused on the task at hand. It can end pretty quickly. You’re either celebrating or crying.”
The Tigers have made deep runs in the playoffs in the past and, in part because of that playoff experience, will be a team to be feared in the playoffs again. “We’ve played in a lot of big games, both us and Air Force,” Wilson said. “If that’s an advantage, we’ll take it. But we just want to keep getting better from now until the end of the year.”
There were rough spots at the beginning. The Tigers were 1-5-2 in their first eight league games but then started climbing in the standings. They were giving up a bunch of goals early and tightened up on the defensive end. Watson, after playing little the last couple of years, began to gain more confidence.
Wilson loves his team’s offensive depth. Smith, and juniors Michael Colavecchia and Adam Mitchell, hit double figures in goals before February. He also loves the way Saracino and Noyes have continued the team’s tradition of puck-moving and productive defensemen.
Smith, who came back from knee surgery before the season and broke his wrist during it, came into the season with 12 career goals. He entered February with 10-8-18 totals. “I can’t say enough about the guy,” Wilson said. “He just works hard every day and has a great attitude and is a great teammate, and he’s getting rewarded now.”
Saracino (5-17-22) and Noyes (6-12-18) play on different defensive units and are among the top-scoring defensemen in the nation.
A year ago, Saracino could only watch and wonder.
He was named MVP of the Catamount Cup at Vermont after the Tigers beat Ferris State and Lake Superior State for the championship just before New Year’s. RIT went to Wisconsin the next week and Saracino took another nasty hit. That was it for his season.
“I had a multitude of concussion symptoms and some neck problems after the Wisconsin series, and it took a while to figure out what was wrong and to get surgery,” Saracino said.
He had his surgery, took the summer to recoup and wasn’t able to skate until August. He was ready to go at the start of the season and now is appreciating his last go-round and last couple of months in the league.
“I feel it more in practice than in games,” Saracino said. “You get tired and then you think about how you’re not going to get to do this much longer. Nothing is guaranteed after this. You’re around the guys in the locker room and you take it in and try to enjoy it as much as possible while you have it.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of New York Hockey Journal.