University of New England men’s hockey Coach Kevin Swallow talks with his players at the start of practice Wednesday in Biddeford. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

BIDDEFORD — On Friday, the University of New England men’s ice hockey team will make the long bus ride to Utica, New York, to take on Utica College in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division III tournament. It’s a drive the Nor’easters made a year ago.

So far, the Nor’easters’ NCAA 2023 tournament experience is playing out almost exactly how it did in 2022. UNE opened with a win over Plymouth State (last season, the game was played at UNE’s arena rather than at Plymouth, New Hampshire, at it was last week). That win triggered the trip to Utica, where last season the Nor’easters won to earn a spot in the national semifinals.

Before Wednesday’s practice, UNE players and coaches said they hope the script remains the same this Saturday.

“They’re going to be coming hard. We have a target on our back after what we did last year. I think we’re up to the challenge,” said senior forward Chad Merrell, one of UNE’s captains.

Senior forward Chad Merrell knows top-ranked Utica is a tough draw in the NCAA quarterfinals. “They’re going to be coming hard. We have a target on our back after what we did last year. I think we’re up to the challenge.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Ranked No. 10 in the latest poll, UNE (20-6-2) will play No. 1 Utica (25-2-1) at 7 p.m. on Saturday for a spot in the final four, which will be played at one of the four remaining schools and will be determined Saturday night.

Now, the Nor’easters are treating every day they’re still on the ice as a gift. Two weeks ago, after a 5-1 loss to Curry in the Commonwealth Coast Conference semifinals, UNE players thought they might be turning in their gear.


“When we lost that game, honestly, it felt like our season was over. After all the dust settled after that weekend, we took a look at the PairWise rankings and realized we had a chance to get it,” said UNE Coach Kevin Swallow.

The PairWise rankings, the system the NCAA uses to determine at-large bids to the tournament, had the Nor’easters ranked seventh, giving them a shot at one of the three at-large bids into the 12-team field. As they waited, the Nor’easters practiced and hoped none of the teams ahead of them would be upset in their conference tournaments.

“It was tough not knowing, being unsure what the future held for us. We kept it light, which was nice. It was good to keep our legs under us,” Merrell said.

For Swallow and his assistant coaches, it was tough to stay motivated and excited without an opponent on the calendar. When they learned on March 6 they had earned one of the three at-large bids and would play at Plymouth State in the first round, the Nor’easters saw it as a second chance.

“Right now, we’re just playing. We thought our season was done two weeks ago. We kind of got a second life here, and the guys embraced that,” Swallow said.

Jake Fuss, a first-team all-conference forward and alternate captain, and UNE face Utica on Saturday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Coming off a 23-4-1 season in 2021-22, UNE began this season 4-3. It took some time for a roster with 10 first-year players to find its identity, said Jake Fuss, a first-team all-conference forward and alternate captain.


“We thought, not necessarily that we were as good as we were last year, but we were a little too confident coming into the season,” Fuss said.

Sophomore Ryan Kuzmich built off a solid rookie campaign last season to lead the Nor’easters in scoring this winter with 15 goals and 21 assists, playing on a line with Fuss and Jared Christy. On the blueline, senior Alex Sheehy joined Fuss as a first team all-conference selection.

“Early on we had some bumps and bruises. Since those first seven games, we’ve been a much better hockey team,” Swallow said.

In Utica, UNE faces a team ranked second in the nation in scoring, averaging 5.75 goals per game, while allowing 1.86 goals per game to lead the nation in scoring margin. The Pioneers haven’t lost since back-to-back losses to defending national champ Adrian in their first two games of the season. Utica hasn’t lost at home since losing to UNE in the quarterfinals a year ago.

“They’re the number one team in the country for a reason. I don’t think they have many deficiencies. It will be a tough matchup,” Swallow said. “We’re going to need our best hockey to win.”

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