March 13, 2024

Building a Positive Culture Under New Coach Szeker, Hun Boys’ Hockey Paving the Way for Future Success

STICKING WITH IT: Hun School boys’ hockey player Brendan Marino, left, goes after the puck in a game last season. Senior forward Marino’s production was a bright spot for the Hun offense as the Raiders went 3-12 this winter. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

In taking the helm of the Hun School boys’ hockey team this winter, Eric Szeker was looking to lay the foundation for something special.

“The biggest thing this year was trying to develop a culture and a way that we want to play every single day, whether that is practice or a game,” said Szeker, a 2013 Hun alum who served as the captain of the Raiders in his senior season and went on to play college hockey at Western New England University.

“It was having our Hun hockey identity rebranded to what I would like to see from it and what we want to see out of the long term. I think we were able to do that this year, which was one of our biggest successes.”

The identity Szeker is looking to foster emphasizes tenacity and resilience.

“We just want to be a hard team to play against, we want to play a team to the whistles,” said Szeker. “We don’t give up on anything, we are tough on you. We go to the tough areas of the ice, the corners and the front of the net. We play a tough brand of hockey. When we walk into the rink, no matter what our record is, it is, ‘Oh man we have got to play these guys again.’”

Although it posted a less than stellar 3-12 record, Hun displayed plenty of toughness this winter, giving a gauntlet of formidable foes tough battles, losing 4-2 to Don Bosco, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Non-Public state tournament runner-up, falling 6-5 to St. Joseph Prep (Pa.) and losing 7-4 to Seton Hall Prep while beating Portledge (N.Y.) 4-2 and edging Malvern Prep (Pa.) 4-3.

The victory over Malvern on February 7, which came after the Raiders had lost 3-2 to the Friars in mid-December, proved to be a highlight of the season.

“It was Senior Night, it was a special day for those guys and the effort they have put into the program on and off the ice,” said Szeker. “We had a couple of student vans come over. We had a packed rink, the environment was phenomenal. The pregame ceremonies went off without a hitch and then it was just an awesome hockey game. We had contributions from up and down the lineup, it was just a full team effort to cap it off with an overtime win.”

While Szeker would have liked to see the Raiders get more wins this season, he believes the players established a special camaraderie.

“There are mixed thoughts and reactions to that; you look at the record and as a competitor and as a coach, you would like to be better,” said Szeker. “That is what it is, you take the record as it comes. But inside the locker room the culture we set up was great. The bonds between the teammates, whether it was the seniors and the sophomores, juniors and seniors, everybody got along really well. Everybody was super excited to come to practice every day and work to get a little better. My team never quit on any single game.”

The squad’s senior group set a positive tone from the start. “You can’t say enough honestly about their impact; as a first year coach, culture and leadership is one of the most important things,” said Szeker. “I asked those guys to help these guys along and be a big brother to them. They took the initiative upon themselves to make it an inviting and awesome place to come. I could not have had a better senior group. I wish we had better success for them because of all of the work they put in, but I know that their impact is going to be felt longer than just one season. Two, three years down the line, there are going to be players that are doing really well in our program because of the leadership they showed. That is something they can be proud of.”

The quartet of senior standouts — Justin Laplante, Ryan Levesque, Brendan Marino, and Charles-Etienne Jette — powered the Hun offense this winter.

“Laplante, Levesque, Marino, and Jette are all phenomenal hockey players,” said Szeker. “They are leaders, they are very mature beyond their age.”

Szeker pointed to another senior, defenseman Jack Neckritz, as an unsung hero for the Raiders.

“Then you saw some players like Jack Neckritz, he had some big goals for us,” said Szeker, whose other senior defenders included Aiden Shine and Alex Peek. “He played defense for us this year. I think it was his first time since squirt hockey. He did what he was asked, he played to his full ability.”

Senior goalies Julien Arseneault and PJ Angotti had some big games this winter.

“Julien and PJ showed up every day and worked as hard as they could in practice,” said Szeker. “We would do 3-on-0 drills and they would still try to dive back and forth even when they had no chance of making the save. It didn’t matter if they got 10 goals scored on them in practice, they would stand right back up and be ready for the next one. They would be cheering each other on when they made big saves. They were just high energy guys in the locker room as well. When you put them in games, you knew what you were going to get. We knew we had a chance to win when one of those two was in the net and then you were just hoping that we would score a couple goals to stay in it.”

Hun got a lot out of its crew of young players. “It took a little bit of time for them to develop that confidence,” said Szeker. “I have always believed that they were good players. Going from JV to varsity can be a big jump, and it took some time. By the end of the year, you could see the comfort level in all aspects of the game. They weren’t intimidated by anybody at that point. It was really fun to go watch them just go out there and play hockey.”

Szeker had fun watching sophomore forward Jake Beck this winter as he developed into an offensive force.

“He was great from day one, in the first scrimmage we had against Bergen Catholic, he stood out almost immediately,” said Szeker of Beck. “From there we continued to give him opportunities on the top line, power play. He did nothing but produce and show results — he continued to get better and better. The best part was that he never changed who he was as a person with the success at the varsity level. He is a great teammate, he is a better friend to a lot of the guys in the room.”

The Raiders boasted several other good young guys at forward in sophomore Anders Van Raalte, sophomore Joachim Neverdal, sophomore Nate Trawinski, sophomore Justin Tong, and junior Luke Rassier.

“Anders and Joachim played well,” said Szeker. “Justin took a massive step this year in going from 16A nationals to playing varsity hockey. Nate had some awesome plays down the stretch when he was playing on some of our top lines, to see him start to blossom was incredible. Luke made the jump from JV to varsity, he was incredible.”

On defense, sophomore Andrew Darst made big strides. “Starting off on the blue line, Andrew had a phenomenal season,” said Szeker. “He had the OT winner against Malvern Prep. It was a really, really slick little goal from behind the goal line there. I knew he would play a big role and have a great season but I think he blew my expectations out of the water. He outperformed night in, night out. You knew he was going to be solid back there. He is going to grow and he is going to get better. I am super excited.”

Junior Jake O’Connell grew into a key performer as he moved back to defense from forward.

“You saw kids like Jake who was on varsity last year playing limited time,” said Szeker. “He took a big step this year. He played defense and he is naturally a forward. He is great at moving the puck, he can shoot the puck a million miles an hour. He did what was asked and did it to the best of his ability. He played hard for his teammates.”

In Szeker’s view, getting his players to work hard every day was a big point of emphasis this winter.

“That is the kind of team we want to be, your skills are always going to be there but you might not have the shots go under the hands that day or the passing that you would like to have,” said Szeker. “Work ethic and effort are something you can control every single day. We have to control the things that we can and let the other things play out and let the chips fall where they may.”

For Szeker, getting the chance to lead the program that played such a key role in his development as a hockey player made it a special winter.

“It is great to be able to give this opportunity back to the next generation of Hun hockey because I had people like Ian (former Hun head coach Ian McNally) in my life,” said Szeker. “If I can give back like those coaches did for me and have a lasting impact on someone’s life, that is what I got into this for.”