SCHENECTADY — As acorns banged and bounced off cartops in the Union College parking lot on Nott Street Tuesday, it was even noisier inside Messa Rink.
Pucks slammed off sidewalls as the Dutchmen men's hockey team ushered in the 2018-19 season with the annual media day, including the team photo before practice.
Sprinkled throughout the rows of players and coaches sitting for the picture were nine seeds planted four years ago who have grown into a deep senior class that will be the foundation of whatever success the promising Union team has this season.
They had a vision as freshmen that this year could be a terrific one, especially if none of them chose to leave early to play pro hockey. None did, and now they're poised to improve upon last year's disappointing ECAC Hockey quarterfinal loss to Princeton in a two-game sweep at Messa.
"It's bitttersweet to be seniors at media day, but that definitely crossed our minds, and this past summer, I think that was a big moment," forward Ryan Walker said. "All nine of us realized that this is our year. Our ultimate goal was to leave a mark on the program, and we haven't really done that yet. So we know we have one last chance, and we're really looking forward to that. It starts with us."
"When I came in freshman year, my ultimate goal was to win a national championship with Union," goalie Jake Kupsky said. "I think that's been our class goal, as well. All nine guys stayed, and all nine guys are playing a role.
"Going into this season, I kind of felt a different vibe around the locker room, where we're pushing for that national championship, and it'll be in the back of our head the entire season. I really think we're going to have a special year, and I can't wait to get going."
Union opens at home 7 p.m. Saturday against Army West Point.
Besides Kupsky and Walker, the senior class is comprised of forwards Cole Maier, Brett Supinski, Sebastian Vidmar, Brendan Taylor and Mark Dufour, defenseman Greg Campbell and third-string goalie Joe Young.
The Dutchmen lost top scorer Ryan Scarfo to graduation, but otherwise, the only player not back of the 11 who had double-digit points during the 2017-18 season is graduated defenseman J.C. Brassard.
Head coach Rick Bennett said he had no problem with his players bringing up the subject of a national championship as a goal during the preseason, as long as they back it up with their preparation and dedication.
"It's one of our seven goals," he said. "That's fine with me. But by the same token, I can say I want to be a national champion coach, but last I checked, we have 34-plus games to get there. It's a long road, and we're looking forward to that road."
"Absolutely. That's the main goal," Vidmar said. "That's what we're starting for every day. That's a clear goal, but in order to get there, we have smaller accomplishments first, starting with this Saturday."
While this is the time of year to look forward, the Dutchmen can't help but look back at how last season ended.
Union got on a roll, winning 10 of its last 12 regular-season games, against a 4-3 loss to top-ranked Cornell and a 1-1 tie with Colgate. The Dutchmen had all the momentum they could ask for, beating Cornell, which by then had dropped to No. 2 in the country, 4-3 at home heading into the ECACH playoffs.
After a bye, Union lost 5-3 and 3-2 to Princeton at Messa in the quarterfinals, as the Tigers' David Hallisey finished a 3-on-1 break with 9.5 seconds left for the sweep.
"Going out last season like that is about the absolute worst way to go out," Walker said. "No. 2 seed in the ECAC, and you get swept at home. That's definitely sat in our heads going into this season, starting on Saturday."
"I'd have to say, of all the losses I've had since I've been here, those two hurt ... a lot," said Bennett, who is entering his eight season as head coach. "Going into the summer and then re-watching those about 52 times has really helped us preparing for this year.
"Let's just say that team that beat us last year in the playoffs, that name has been brought up about a hundred times. And it's going to continue to be used just to keep them focused."
Maier said Bennett has also been issuing reminders about fitness and conditioning throughout the offseason, something the team apparently has taken to heart.
Kupsky said the team overall has performed better in preseason baseline testing than it has in any of his first three years.
"If we want to be able to play the way we want to, you're going to have to be in good shape," Maier said. "We want to play fast, and you're going to need to be in shape to do that for a full 60, or 65, whatever it may take that night."
"Building off my class, we've been looking forward to being seniors for awhile now," Kupsky said. "I think the guys really hit home the fact that off-ice habits are going to translate on the ice. We just need to keep carrying that work ethic into the season."