Shortly after the Columbus Cottonmouths lost in the Southern Professional Hockey League finals to Pensacola on April 12, coach Jerome Bechard sat down with Kathy Gierer to review the season.
Finishing in sixth place at the end of the regular season instead of seventh was pretty costly, with your team having to make two 15-hour road trips. Did that bother you and the team at all?
Yes and no. It didn't bother us to play Peoria, but I wasn't happy with the schedule: one there, one here, one there. I wanted to play Thursday here and Friday-Saturday there. It would have saved wear and tear on our bodies. It was also very costly to make two trips.
Discuss the Peoria series. A 2-0 shutout loss in Game 1, then your team roared back with two decisive wins. How much confidence did winning that series give the team?
It was a huge boost. We were out of sync in the first game. We had two teams working separately, the forwards and the defense. We were not a cohesive unit in the 2-0 loss. We watched the video and changed a few things and executed very well in the second and third games.
Were you surprised at the tight 1-0 outcome in Game 1 against Huntsville?
In the Huntsville series, especially the first game, we were still lagging from the travel and short turnaround. In the 1-0 game, we weren't great, but Andrew Loewen was. He was the difference. We didn't execute well in that game.
The 4-2 win in Game 2 put you in the finals. I know you wanted a championship, but was there pride in that achievement when it didn't seem possible a month earlier?
We had more energy and executed way better in Game 2. All year long, I felt like we had what we needed to win, but in the last month of the season and in the playoffs, we played really good hockey. After Steve Mele left, we took a step back and had to regroup. I think we lost three or four in a row and I started looking for a couple guys. The last week of the season, we got Shayne Stockton. It took him a few games to get his feet wet, but it ended up good for us.
Did it affect your team at all to only play Pensacola twice in the regular season?
I don't think it helped. Playing them in March told us enough to know what their game was all about. It was enough to motivate us.
When I saw Pensacola play, all I could think about was the ECHL slogan one year: Bigger, Faster, Stronger. Talent-wise, Pensacola was loaded.
They have all three lines that can score as well as all six defenseman that can contribute offensively. They all bought into their system. You can't take anything away from Pensacola. They proved they're the best team in the league. But we didn't execute at all in the finals.
How demoralizing was the 9-1 road loss in Game 1?
It was not as bad as everyone thinks. We didn't want to lose that big, but I'd rather that than getting our hearts ripped out in a 2-1 loss in overtime. We played well in spurts and showed we could play with them.
Did you hesitate before pulling Andrew in that game, something you so rarely do?
I did hesitate. I didn't want him to feel badly. He gave up six goals in the first game, a couple of which were lucky. But you've got to be good to be lucky.
How did you feel that Shannon Szabados played in that game?
She played well. The first shot she faced was a two-on-one and she stopped it cleanly. I put her in to protect Andrew's psyche, not to throw Shannon to the wolves.
What was the critical moment in Game 2?
It was the power play goal giving them a 3-1 lead. It was bang-bang and I think it went off a skate and trickled in. Our energy level really dropped after that.
This was a young group. Was it one of your more talented teams?
It was pretty talented. I look back to the 2011-12 team and it had everything: toughness, skill, goaltending. I'd put this team right up there with that one.
Tom Maldonado was your only vet, but Sam Bowles provided a lot of leadership in the second half of the season. What determines how many vets you have?
It depends on what's available. Some teams go out and look for vets in their twilight years. I look at guys who will buy in. In the early years I brought in guys like Ryan Aikia and Craig Stahl and more recently Brett Hammond.
Describe Kyle Johnson's leadership style as captain.
Kyle put a lot of pressure on himself. Near the end of the season, I thought he was more comfortable. The pressure may have hurt his game.
You made a number of key personnel decisions this season. Were they through your internal connections or the hockey network?
A little bit of both. Steve Mele and Neilsson Arcibal came through a random email from an agent. Preston Shupe had the Canisius connection through Andrew Loewen and Pete MacDougall. Shannon, of course, was internal. With Shayne, I started looking at the NCAA players available and which teams were out of the finals and started making calls to coaches.
You just completed the end-of-season interviews with the players. How many do you expect back? I know the fans want to know if Shannon is coming back.
I'm looking at maybe having 12-13 back, a good core group. Shannon had a blast here and wants to come back. I'm pretty positive she'll be here.
What key losses do you expect?
I think the core will be there. It was nice to have Sam's leadership in the second half. It would've been nice to have it all year long. Sam wasn't comfortable at first coming into a locker room with a lot of guys he didn't know. If Alex Gallant doesn't end up here, we'll need somebody to fill that role. We'll need second line scoring as well.
Do you consider this season a success?
Nobody had us going to the finals. We underachieved most of the year, but my team showed up for two weeks and then fell asleep. It's my job to find out why they fell asleep. I need to look in the mirror and demand more from them.