It's Jon Basti's first season at Sacred Heart. He's not inheriting a prism of light, but he is working with a program that took some important steps in 2013. Dramatic performance improvement isn't expected in Fairfield, but if Basti can start to change the culture a bit with the Pioneers, Sacred Heart could finally bust the four-win barrier (the Pioneers last won more than four games in 2008 when the team put seven in the win column).
Here are some schedule highlights and games of note:
One More Time, With Feeling
March 29: @Robert Morris; April 2: Bryant; April 5: @Hobart; April 15: Wagner; April 19: @St. Joseph's; April 26: Mount St. Mary's
There aren't many teams that go winless in nonconference play and finish with a plus-.500 league record. That, though, was Sacred Heart's reality in 2013: After eight consecutive losses to start their campaign last year, the Pioneers pivoted into Northeast Conference play and earned three big victories -- the only three wins the team would experience last season -- to push Sacred Heart into the NEC Tournament for the first time ever. The Pioneers could have folded up their tent after a disastrous start to what became Thomas Mariano's last season in Fairfield, but Sacred Heart pushed through the core of its schedule and achieved when continued failure was anticipated. That says a lot about the Pioneers' fortitude, and Sacred Heart needs to replicate its effort from a year ago to ensure forward momentum in the program: The NEC is still a minefield of potential pain for a program of the Pioneers' ilk, and with the addition of Hobart to the league in 2014, Sacred Heart's pursuit of a second consecutive league tournament invitation is not guaranteed. Complicating things for the Pioneers is that Sacred Heart will open its league campaign this coming spring with three of the conference's most developed programs: Robert Morris (in Moon Township), Bryant, and Hobart (in Geneva). Opportunities exist for Sacred Heart to right the ship if they start winless in NEC play, but that puts a lot of pressure on the Pioneers to finish strong when other teams should be reaching their peak. Success -- even unexpected success -- breeds a level of expectations, and Sacred Heart will need to grapple with that in 2014.
March 8: Providence; March 11: @Stony Brook; March 15: Hartford; March 22: @Vermont
Sacred Heart has recreated a tough stretch from 2013:
- at Providence: 10-12 (L)
- Stony Brook: 10-12 (L)
- at Hartford: 7-10 (L)
- Vermont: 7-8 (OT) (L)
That's four losses by a combined six goals. That's the difference between a winless nonconference existence and one that looks a little prettier in the media guide. Sacred Heart will see these teams -- in the same exact order on virtually the same game dates -- again in 2014 with a taste for blood in their mouth. Stringing wins together is tough when defeat is suffocating, and how the Pioneers manage this 14-day stretch is vitally important as to where the Pioneers head in league play. For Sacred Heart, competitiveness in these games provides more value than simple wins; if the Pioneers look and act like a team that can throw hands with these clubs, Sacred Heart could be in good shape for the final month of regular season play.