Fledgling ECSU Hockey Program Has A Decidedly Local Flavor
Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic has a long history of athletic tradition. The men’s baseball team is a perennial Division III power and the soccer and baseball and softball programs have all had their share of success.
Yes, Eastern has a hockey team. And did you know that the roster is stocked with local players from some of the best high school programs in the state?
Some of the area standouts include Cory Gabor and Bryan Constantine of Glastonbury as well as Marcus O’Neil (South Windsor High) and Andrew Votta (Enfield).
The team is still operating at club status, but the hope is to continue to grow the program enough so that it may be given consideration for varsity status.
Until this year, that notion seemed unlikely. Since its inception the program has had trouble retaining players. The environment changed this year with the arrival of new coach John Brancati of Tolland.
Brancati has been around hockey for more than 30 years, and one day while coaching another team at The Bolton Ice Palace, he observed the ECSU boys on the ice and noticed they were missing a key component to their team; a coach. Now, along with assistant coach, Galen Byram, Brancati is trying to create yet another winning tradition at ECSU.
The team is in D2 of the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) and this year had an overall record of 7-8-1. The program has applied to join the North East Collegiate Hockey Association (NECHA) for next season. The league has five conferences and 31 teams.
“We only won four games last year,” said Brancati, but when asked about this season, he said, “The university has been very supportive and positive about the growth of the program.”
Funding for this typically expensive sport has come from the schools student association, students holding fundraisers, and fans attending games donating. “The problem is hockey is so expensive compared to rugby,” said Brancati. However, this year students only had to pay a small fee to be on the team.
The support from the school and the student body has been better than any players or coaches could have hoped with fans traveling near and far to watch and root for their fellow classmates. ECSU as well as the student association has also proved to be huge supporters of this team, which is still trying to establish itself in the community.
The team practices at the South Windsor Arena, where they now have a locker room, and as Brancati described it, “a place to call home.”
The team had some tough loses against other club teams like Fairfield University, University of Connecticut and Providence College. But the kids also had some great wins against Quinnipiac University, Connecticut College, and Holy Cross.
Brancati believes that this team has a lot farther to go and thinks that it is mostly due to the team having more desire and dedication to the team and coaching staff, and looks forward to competing and playing hard. “The commitment (was) better this year than it has been in the past. They committed to working hard at all practices, while having fun playing the game they love. The guys have a very positive attitude and strive to win all the time. ” he said.