SCHENECTADY — Benicia, Calif., is 3,000 miles from Schenectady.
Lafayette, Colo., is closer, but still checks in at 1,800.
Sam Morton, 19, hasn’t spent much of his life in upstate New York, but he’s in it now, in the middle of the Union men’s hockey team’s third line and in the middle of some of the success the 4-2-1 Dutchmen have had so far.
The only freshman on the roster to have played in all seven games heading into a weekend home series against St. Lawrence and Clarkson, the 5-foot-11, 165-pound center has five points, including his first college goal in a 5-3 loss to RPI last Friday.
Linemate Jack Adams retrieved the puck, which found its way to Morton’s locker stall. More often, the left-handed Morton has been distributing pucks to others, with four assists, including two on opening night in a 4-1 win over Army.
“He’s a really skilled forward,” senior center Brett Supinski said. “He sees the ice really well. And I think he’s also a good two-way forward. Coming in as a center, I know I was a winger for two years …, and it’s tough to do. He’s handled it pretty well so far.”
“I think Sam has established himself as a guy that can contribute to this lineup,” head coach Rick Bennett said. “Of our games that we’ve played, he’s played more good than not. He’s a very coachable guy, he’s very willing and does extra work, so he’s just going to get better.
“I think some of those other guys [freshmen] can take notice of how hard he works and how he does some extra things to get better.”
Morton has stayed out of the penalty box, and he and Adams are tied for the team lead in plus/minus, at +4.
His goal against RPI opened the scoring in a 5-3 Engineers victory, and came on the power play, with assists from senior captain Cole Maier and Liam Morgan.
“It was a little bit of weight off,” Morton said. “I pretty much got a good bounce and was on a rush with Cole and Morgs, and Cole didn’t even look over, but I was lucky enough that it found my stick and I just had to tap it in pretty much, get it over the pad.
“Jack grabbed it for me, and I found it in my stall the next day.”
Morton and the sophomore Adams have been linemates since the beginning of the season, with sophomore Parker Foo joining them once he got over an illness after having missed the first three games.
Two of Morton’s four assists have come on the power play.
He set up Adams for a hard shot that Foo tipped in to cut RPI’s lead to 4-3 on Friday, but the Dutchmen couldn’t get the equalizer.
“Jack thinks the game pretty similar to me,” Morton said. “We talk about that a lot. When we’re talking about things on the bench, I think it makes sense for both of us, so we can kind of feed off of each other and think of new plays and new things to try.
“Parker, I haven’t had as much time to work with, but it was starting to build against Northeastern. We started to put some good shifts together.”
One of the biggest adjustments for Morton, as a center, has been the added responsibility of getting back on defense, something Bennett stresses with all of his forwards, but particularly the centers.
He also is still getting used to the speed of the college game.
“It’s a lot stronger than juniors, is the biggest thing I’ve noticed,” Morton said. “You’ve got to be strong on your skates and strong on your stick.
“Thinking the game, everything has to be a half-second to a second quicker. It comes with practicing against good guys, and playing against high-level players makes the adjustment easier, for sure. But there’s definitely some time it takes to get acclimated to it.
“It’s just tough when you’re coming in as a freshman center and you have a lot of defensive responsibilities and also have to get up ice and create offense,” said Supinski, who played two seasons at wing before being moved to center last season. “It’s just a little bit different. And he’s been doing really well in faceoffs, as well.”
Bennett credited assistant coaches Jason Tapp and John Ronan for identifying Morton early in the recruiting process, and sticking with him.
Morton spent the first 13 years of his life in California, and moved with his family to Washington for two years before they settled in Colorado.
In his final season of juniors, and second with the Wenatchee Wild of the British Columbia Hockey League, his production took a steep angle upward, with 54 points in 58 games on 29 goals and 25 assists.
He’s interested in psychology or economics once he settles on a major next year.
“I like that it’s [Union] small,” Morton said. “It keeps your focus on the right things, school and hockey. You have a little bit less distractions. And I heard a lot of good things about the staff, and they’ve backed that up as long as I’ve been here.”
Maier, a senior forward, was named ECACH player for the month for October, it was announced Thursday.
Maier had four goals and six assists in seven games. His 10 points leads the conference.