By Dave Dyer
---- — As they expected, Reilly Cavanaugh and Ryan Daigle have found the best of two worlds, and they’re loving it.
Cavanaugh, a junior from West Newbury who prepped at Berwyck Academy, and freshman Daigle from Merrimac, who was an Eagle-Tribune All-Star at Central Catholic, are teammates on the UMass Amherst club hockey team.
Just the club team, you say? It’s a lot more advanced than it sounds, the caliber of play is excellent and it’s run very much like a varsity team.
There are tryouts of 50-60 candidates to make the club squad, there is a complete schedule of games throughout New England, the team travels on first-class buses, they usually play in the premier rinks and the season runs from September until March.
“It’s a good level of hockey,” said Daigle. “It’s better than high school and I think we could beat most Division 3 (college) teams. We’re well disciplined and we’re well coached.”
And it fits the needs of Daigle perfectly. He was looking for a large school with a strong engineering program, but he also wanted to continue playing hockey, realizing that he wasn’t quite good enough to make a Division 1 team and he didn’t want to make the time commitment to playing varsity college hockey at any level. Thus, he also applied to Virginia Tech, WPI and Purdue, all of which have club hockey teams, before settling on UMass.
Similarly, Cavanaugh was considering Division 3 St. Michael’s in Vermont but opted for the situation in which athletics and academics are more balanced.
“It came down to hockey would have been an everyday thing (at St. Michael’s), even in Division 3, and I didn’t want to make the time commitment,” said Cavanaugh. “This way, I have more time for my studies and other things I want to do.”
Instead of practicing every day, UMass (like most club teams) practices twice a week, it plays games on the weekend and has a limited strength and conditioning program. The program is partially funded by the university, but players have to pay $900 of their own to participate.
“It kid of seems like a varsity sport,” said Daigle. “The practices are longer than in high school and we take really nice buses to the games.
“Also, there is more of a team atmosphere than there is in high school. You live with the other players, you eat with them, you see them during the day ... I’m really enjoying it so far.”
Thus far, it’s also enjoyable because UMass has been winning. A Division 2 member of the Northeast Collegiate Hockey Association of the ACHA (American Collegiate Hockey Association), along with schools like Boston College, Boston University, UNH and Merrimack College, UMass is off to a 6-4-1 start.
And Cavanaugh and Daigle have been playing key roles thus far. Cavanaugh is part of the top defensive pair, Daigle is a first-line center and both have been involved with the charities associated with the club team, the leading one being Shriners Hospital.
“Reilly is exactly how I wish other kids were on the team,” said UMass coach Steve MacKay, who is in his seventh year with the program and gets a small stipend from the school. “He’s a hard worker in the classroom and he’s a hard worker on the ice. He’s also a respectful young man and when he does charity work, like with the Shriners, he really gets into it.
“Ryan is just an outstanding young man — a real solid kid. He’s going to be a big part of our program going on..
“They’re both really good hockey players. People have no idea about the caliber of play we face, We’re close to a Division 3 (varsity) team and in some cases better. I’ve had guys who have come to us after playing (collegiate) varsity hockey and have been amazed at how good the hockey is.”
The level of competition for club hockey, of course, is open to debate. The opportunity it provides is not, however.
“It’s a commitment, but it’s not so great I can’t do other things,” said Cavanaugh. “I just really like playing hockey and this allows me to do it.”
Club team at Merrimack Merrimack, which will host UMass Amherst later this week, has a club hockey team in its fourth year. Coached by David Breen, it plays its games at Lawlor Arena and the team includes senior captain Craig Cameron of Salem, N.H.