By MIKE SMITH
On March 25, the University of New Hampshire club hockey team made a historic run to claim the first-ever national title in the program’s history. Leading the way was a local skater, as former Rye Town/Harrison star Sal Giacomo played a big part in the Wildcats’ success this season.
Playing at Northeast University in Boston, the Wildcats downed Florida Gulf Coast in the championship game, beating FGCU 5-3.
Although the Wildcats were able to storm through the national bracket, Giacomo admits even making the tourney was touch-and-go after the team went 2-1 in pool play.
“Generally, you’ve got to go 3-0 to qualify,” he said. “But, luckily, another of the top teams lost a game as well, so we were able to qualify.”
Once the Wildcats found themselves in the tournament, the Harrison grad said, losing didn’t seem like an option.
“Once we made it out of the pool play, I think we had a lot of confidence,” Giacomo said. “We had so much momentum; especially going into that final game, we felt there was no way we were going to lose.”
Giacomo, a sophomore, is no stranger to success on the ice‑having captained Rye Town/Harrison to a Conference 2 title in 2012‑but he said the thrill of playing in the ACHA national tournament was unlike anything he has experienced in his athletic career.
“It was nuts,” he said. “Even playing teams from down south, Florida, you don’t think the fans are going to be as into it, but they are.”
Giacomo joined the team last year, but admits he was surprised at the turnout at the first practice. The University of New Hampshire varisty hockey team is among the best in the country and its club team is comparable to some other varsity programs throughout the nation.
“We had 100 kids show up at tryouts,” he said. “I didn’t realize how competitive it was going to be. You’ve got guys here that played juniors, and this is on the level of a Division II or Division III squad.”
Practicing every day, sometimes for two to three hours on the ice, Giacomo said he has seen his skills improve vastly since joining the UNH team. He made his presence felt in the team’s Super East College Hockey League tournament, scoring a second-period goal against reigning champion William Patterson College to break a 2-2 tie and lead UNH to the SECHL title.
“The team carries 32 guys, so you’re not guaranteed to dress every game,” he said. “Every time you do get on the ice, you’ve got to make the best of it.”
Giacomo said he’s benefitted from playing with older, more experienced players as the Wildcats have some skaters on roster in their early to mid-20’s.
“We’ve got guys 24, 25 who played prep hockey on the team,” Giacomo said. “So you can pick up little things from playing with them, you learn how to play in big time situations.”
With a national title under his belt, Giacomo knows next year he will be one of the veterans imparting advice to the younger Wildcats players. And while he will soon be back in the gym, working on improving for the Wildcats’ title defense, he admitted he is going to take at least a few days to celebrate the team’s 2014 run.
“It really hasn’t sunk in yet,” Giacomo said. “There’s over 160 teams in our division and it’s still like ‘how the hell did we do this?’ Right now, we’re definitely still enjoying this moment.”