In 1988, Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City hosted one of the most famous boxing matches in history. In what has been dubbed the “91-second knockout,” underdog Mike Tyson pummeled heavyweight champion Michael Spinks in just over a minute and a half to claim his first heavyweight title.
Almost 25 years later, when the men’s hockey team took the ice to face No. 1 Quinnipiac in the same building for the ECAC Semifinals, their odds were even longer than Tyson’s. Bruno had tied the Bobcats twice during the season, and many of Head Coach Brendan Whittet’s ’94 players saw a favorable matchup against the top-ranked team.
But this was the big stage. Brown hockey hadn’t progressed this far since 1993. The last time Bruno appeared in the ECAC semifinals, Whittet was in uniform rather than behind the bench. With him at the helm of the team, they were picked unanimously to finish last by ECAC coaches at the beginning of the year, while Quinnipiac asserted its dominance by beating Cornell 10-0 just a few days earlier. But this time, Whittet’s squad was not fazed by the circumstances.
Bruno relied on strong performances from the usual sources. Matt Lorito ’15, the team’s leading scorer, posted bookend goals, while Anthony Borelli ’13 continued a wave of strong play. The Bears went up 4-0 by the middle of the second period and finished off the improbable victory by the same score.
As fulfilling as that moment was for the Bears, the next day was equally disappointing.
Expectations were high. If Bruno could come up with a win, he would move on to the NCAA Regionals at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence. An ECAC championship had been a seemingly unrealistic goal for years, and now it seemed within reach.
But that evening against Union, the storybook ending did not come. As Borelli later said, Bruno “just didn’t get the bounces to go our way.” Despite outshooting the Dutchmen 33-22, including 11-1 in the third period, the Bears came up just short of a Providence homecoming.
An unexpected beginning
In Bruno’s first meeting against Union Dec. 7, 2012, Borelli sat on the bench, watching the action the same way he had for most of his career in a Brown uniform. This was his senior year, yet he had played in only a handful of games.
Late in the first period, starting goaltender Marco De Filippo ’14 went down with a knee injury. Borelli stepped in, stopping all 16 shots he faced, leading Bruno to a 3-3 tie.
“My first thought was, ‘Don’t get pulled,’” Borelli said with a laugh. “I just really wanted to do everything I could to give the team a chance to win. I really wanted to prove to everybody that I should be in the net.”
Borelli became the team’s starting goaltender. He finished 14-9-5 on the season, but the transition was not always easy.
“Not playing for three years, you’re just always watching games,” Borelli said. “You kind of lose the speed of it. The first game, things were happening really quickly. The more you play, everything slows down. By the end of the season, I felt like I was in control of the game.”
By Bruno’s visit to Cornell, Borelli had caught up to speed. In Lynah Rink, whose crowds make it one of ECAC’s toughest venues to visit, Borelli stopped 23 shots on his way to the first shutout of his career.
“It felt awesome,” he said. “We came out and dominated them as a team.”
The shutout marked a turning point for Borelli’s season. It started a stretch during which he gave up just two goals in four games, culminating with another shutout against No. 9 Yale.
Borelli would continue his hot stretch as the season progressed. He finished with a .942 save percentage and a 1.84 goals-against-average, good for third and fifth in the nation, respectively.
“It was cool seeing my name up there with some of the best in the nation,” Borelli said. “It just cemented what I thought I could do all along.”
Borelli’s teammates also lauded his success.
“He’s the reason we made it that far,” said captain Dennis Robertson ’14. “He gave us a chance to win with his consistent play every night. That’s huge, especially on a team where things were going a little shaky at the start of the year. For a guy who didn’t play one game last year, he worked through it and waited his turn.”
“There’s something about the way (Borelli) plays,” Lorito said. “He really gives us a lot of confidence. He gives the team a sense that if something goes wrong, he’s going to be there to back you up.”
After the season, Borelli was signed by the Cincinnati Cyclones of the East Coast Hockey League, a minor league team affiliated with the NHL’s Nashville Predators and Florida Panthers. He traveled to Cincinnati after the college season ended to play in the team’s final games.
“I’d say this season saved my career from being extremely hard,” Borelli said. “Being able to say that I played pro hockey is definitely a great feeling, a great accomplishment. But I see this as just one more stepping stone to the next level.”
Richie Crowley ’13, Jeff Ryan ’13 and Chris Zaires ’13 were also signed to play in the ECHL.
The team going forward
Though he has yet to sign a professional contract, Lorito’s season was arguably as impressive as Borelli’s. He led the team in nearly every offensive category, scoring 22 goals and tallying 37 points on the season. Lorito became the first player since Damian Prescott ’98 to score at least 20 goals in a season and was named to the second team All-ECAC.
“Last year it was a little difficult for me at the beginning of the season,” Lorito said. “This year, I was getting a little more on my shot and getting stronger. I knew I could be a good player in this league, and I wanted to prove that this year, and I think I did a pretty good job.”
Lorito stepped into a new role at center on the top line for the first half of the season. When his production dropped midway through the year, Whittet shifted him over to left wing, where his prolific goal-scoring talents reappeared.
“The shift helped,” Lorito said. “I just needed a little bit of a change. When coach put me on the wing, it gave me a little bit more freedom out there.”
Lorito was paired up with Mark Naclerio ’16 and Nick Lappin ’16 on the top line. It may have been the team’s youngest shift, but it was also Bruno’s most productive. Naclerio and Lappin finished second and fourth on the team in points, respectively, trailing Lorito’s pace.
“I love playing with those guys,” Lorito said. “When we got put together, we started to click right away.”
“He was the cornerstone of our team,” Robertson said. “He’s a heart and soul guy out there. You knew he was going to be good.”
For Robertson, this season brought a new perspective as team captain. The team’s top defenseman, Robertson blocked a team-high 65 shots and embraced his role as a visible leader.
“Being captain was incredible,” Robertson said. “This was the best team I’ve ever been a part of at Brown … It was a close-knit group of guys, and it was a really fun year.”
Robertson played with Brandon Pfeil ’16 on the first defensive pairing, another first-year who stepped in for the Bears this season.
Robertson is the only player on the team who has been drafted to play in the NHL. The Toronto Maple Leafs drafted him out of high school and hold his rights if he decides to play professional hockey after his senior year.
While Robertson is the leader out on the ice, Whittet remains a firm presence from the bench. Whittet, in his fourth year at the helm, received universal praise for his leadership. A self-described “yeller” on the bench, he openly displayed his emotions before, during and after every game, whether banging his head off the nearest glass in frustration while on the bench or jumping up and down in jubilation.
“He’s an emotional guy, but that gives you energy to feed off on the bench,” Robertson said. “He’s definitely hard on us and expects a lot out of us, but that’s part of the job.”
“He definitely helped me out this year,” Borelli said. “Anything I wanted to talk about I could go talk to him.”
Started at the bottom, now we’re here
Early in the season, injuries plagued Brown’s lineup. Highly touted first-year Nate Widman ’16 was injured six minutes into the first game of the ECAC season. Garnet Hathaway ’14, Kyle Quick ’15 and Matt Wahl ’14, among others, also missed time during the season. Whittet said the season was “the worst (he’s) ever seen” for injuries.
Robertson acknowledged a sense of doubt in the locker room when the injuries kept piling up.
“But when (Borelli) stepped in, that was the turning point,” he said. “In January, we all started to believe that we could make a run. Then we had a really strong spring, and it carried on in the playoffs.”
The team rode Borelli’s momentum through the end of the regular season, securing a No. 7 seed for the ECAC Tournament, hosting a home series against Clarkson in the first round.
Bruno easily defeated the Golden Knights, winning the first game 3-0, the second 4-3 — sweeping the best-of-three series.
“We went into Clarkson knowing we were going to beat them,” Borelli said. “There were no doubts whatsoever. After we won the first game, we knew it would be tough to beat a team twice in a row, but we just came out and completely dominated.”
The following weekend, Bruno faced off against RPI for a road series in Troy, N.Y. Not only would the Bears have to defeat the No. 16 team in the country, but they would also have to contend with a hostile environment. In all three games, a roaring crowd covered in red packed the nearly sold out Houston Field House.
Brown took the early series lead with a 3-1 victory in game one, led by Lorito’s 18th goal of the season and a game-winner from Michael Juola ’14 with less than two minutes left on the clock. The game included a set of close calls by the officials that went Bruno’s way, exposing the referees to a chorus of boos from the Engineers’ crowd for the rest of the series.
In game two, the Bears fell 6-2 in a result ECAC coaches would likely have expected at the beginning of the season. The six goals-allowed tied for Borelli’s worst performance of the season with another earlier matchup against RPI.
With the season on the line, Bruno countered the crowd’s energy by jumping out to a 3-0 start, all three goals coming in the game’s first 25 minutes. RPI stormed back, netting two goals in the last three minutes of the second period to make the score 3-2.
In the third period, RPI came out strong. The Engineers’ 13 shots in the period nearly matched Bruno’s 17 during the game. But Borelli’s confidence was not shaken by the game two loss, and he denied all 13, leading the Bears to Atlantic City with 40 total saves.
“In the playoffs, wins are the only thing that matters,” Borelli said. “In a three-game series, you have to win two. … We just had to control what we could control Sunday and win.”
Borelli said that after the RPI series, Brown hockey started to gain more national recognition and respect around the league.
“People started saying ‘Brown is for real,’ or ‘They’re becoming a good team. It’s not the same old program,’” Borelli said.
National polls took notice. For the first time, Brown received votes in both national rankings.
Until next year…
“It was a rollercoaster of emotions,” Robertson said of the team’s weekend in Atlantic City. The unimaginable high of beating the top team in the nation, followed by the heartbreaking defeat against Union was polarizing. It was difficult for the players to determine whether they should be pleased with how far they had come, that they had made history, or if they should be disappointed at a missed opportunity to play in front of a home crowd in the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s definitely disappointing for us because we were so close,” Borelli said. “Making it to Providence really would have been like a dream run. But at the end of the day, you have to look at where we were after Christmas and where we came. … Even though we lost the ultimate goal, we have to be proud of what we accomplished when nobody thought we could.”
Lorito and Robertson echoed the mixed emotions.
“We were so close to winning it all,” Lorito said.
“When I look back years from now, I’ll view it as a success,” Robertson said. “But at the same time, it still stings a little bit.”
After capturing the ECAC Championship over Brown, Union advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament where it was defeated by Quinnipiac, who advanced to the Frozen Four. Yale joins the Bobcats in Pittsburgh to bolster the ECAC presence. They could potentially face each other to play for a national championship. Bruno combined for a 2-1-2 record against both teams this season.
With the end of this season, Lorito and Robertson have focused their attention on next year. Lorito will most likely play on the same top line with Lappin, Naclerio, Robertson and Pfeil.
There will also be some losses. Borelli departs with Zaires, Ryan, Crowley, Francis Drolet ’13 and Marc Senecal ’13.
Lorito and Robertson said the goal is the same — an ECAC Championship.
“This year was a very good experience for our team, and we’re going to use it to our advantage next year when the playoffs come around,” Lorito said. “This year gave us the belief that we could do it. We just came up a little short. We’re going to be hungry to get back there.”
“An ECAC Championship has always been our goal,” Robertson said. “That was a crushing defeat, and it motivates you that much more to work hard in the offseason and bring it next year.”
Next year, the odds may be more improbable. But if this year is any indication, that won’t stop a determined group of Brown hockey players from defying their critics.