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Hurricanes hockey keeping goals in sight

AMHERST – Amherst High School hockey coach Mike Rousseau made "the toughest decision of [his] career" in 2014 when he left the perennially successful Cathedral High School program of head coach Brian Foley to take the head job at Amherst High School. Rousseau has since won back-to-back Western Mass. Coach of the Year awards with the Hurricanes and is gearing up for another run at the state title this season.

"It's all about building a culture of winning," said Rousseau, "That's the most important thing I learned (at Cathedral), it's all about how you present yourself as you build that winning culture."

Rousseau took over a 5-win team, and with a very similar roster, won 14 games and went to the Western Mass semifinal. How? The coach gave credit to the system his has taken and tinkered with from its Cathedral origins.

"Part of it was the fact that they had no systems, no team concept," he said, "The best players played the most and that was about it. We've put systems in that the kids can understand and handle. We've been running the same systems we did four years ago: offensive and forecheck, defensive zone coverage and neutral zone. The skill level is getting higher and higher."

Rousseau says the new system and increasing skill and competition level means every minute of playing time is up for grabs, regardless of seniority.

"If the skill level of a younger guy coming in doesn't allow a senior to play, I've got to look at the success of the program."

Rousseau is a teacher at the town's middle school, and Rousseau takes that same attitude of learning to the ice.

"One of the things we do, every time our more experience players do something better than our younger guys we'll have a learning session," said Rousseau, adding that younger players "have to learn, and they have to learn quick, and they do, and that shows the commitment to the program.

One player who has seen the evolution since the beginning is Nico Cardaropoli, a senior who started playing for the Hurricanes the same year Rousseau was hired as coach.

"Never back down from an opponent, that's the biggest thing I've learned," said Cardaropoli about his 3+ years with the program so far, "We go out and believe even if we're down that we're going to win that game, and usually with that mentality you do."

This season, the Hurricanes have welcomed players from Palmer High School and Hopkins Academy as well, brining the team's total roster, including junior varsity, to over 40 players.

Junior Gio Rivera says the transition has been no problem.

"I guess we just spend too much time together (to not get along)," said Rivera, "We have team dinners before every home game. I think the first game was big as well, being in a game with those guys...Coach has taught us how to be a family."

Sophomore Nick Foster entered the system as it was clearly on the rise, coming off of Rousseau's first coach of the year title in 2015. Foster said the level of competition and the excitement of winning made fitting in easy.

"The older guys set a pretty good example, and you've just got to follow it," said Foster ,"(One of the biggest things is) communication, picking up your teammates, learning how to be a part of the program."

Despite a successful history, the Hurricanes won just 12 games in three seasons prior to Rousseau's arrival. The opportunity to restore the program's glory was a major factor drawing Rousseau to Amherst.

This year, the Hurricanes have scored 10 goals in 2 games, but have only an 0-1-1 record to show for it. Amherst will try to overcome this minor setback in pursuit of its larger goals, but Rousseau says the Hurricanes keep their expectations ambitious but humbly short-term.

"Long term, of course our goal is to be in that tournament where everyone wants to be," said Rousseau, "But short term it's shift by shift. Win your shift, then we can talk about winning a period, and then a game and on from there. But it all starts with winning your shift, and that's where your focus needs to be."

The Hurricanes (0-1-1) will face Easthampton (1-0-1) on the road Wednesday night at 7:00 pm.

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