WATERVILLE — The last time the Colby College hockey team skated in a competitive game, it was completing the program’s first ever appearance in a national semifinal.

It’s been nearly eight months since that loss to eventual national champion St. Norbert College in Lake Placid, New York, and the Mules are feeling every day of it.

“We’re really anxious. From the end of last season, it’s felt like a while since we’ve been in game action,” Colby senior center Nick O’Connor said this week. “It’s been a long fall. Everyone’s been working hard, and we’re kind of anxious to show off the hard work.”

After winning the program’s first New England Small College Athletic Conference championship en route to the Frozen Four last winter, Colby (17-11-2 overall, 12-7-2 NESCAC) was ranked 11th in the preseason NCAA Division III poll. But with the NESCAC’s quirky schedule keeping teams off practice ice until November 1 and out of game action weeks longer than their national D-III counterparts, the Mules are currently unranked.

A strong showing with an opening weekend at home against Middlebury College on Friday and Williams College on Saturday, though, and Colby could be right back where it was last spring. But don’t ask the Mules to make comparisons.

“We’re kind of preaching that last year was last year,” O’Connor said. “This team is different from last year’s team, we’re going to have a new identity and we’ve got a lot of young guys. We’re just going to try to work as hard as we can and do all the little things right with the guys we have in this room now and go from there.”

Nine seniors graduated from last year’s Colby team, and there were notable hits along the team’s blue line. Half of the six defenseman who played against St. Norbert are gone, while junior Mark Leprine will be out at least four weeks with a broken left foot. Billy Overby is making the transition to forward this season.

Colby College head coach Blaise MacDonald reacts on the bench during an NCAA Tournament game at SUNY-Geneseo last March. Colby College photo

All that leaves only senior Thomas Stahlhuth returning to the team’s defensive corps — along with five new faces from which to try and build a successful group.

“There’s a lot of skill that we brought in,” Stahlhuth said. “Not that we didn’t lose skill, but we lost a lot of experience. The guys coming in have a lot of upside potential. It’s just getting them touches early, getting them comfortable. They’re all going to have an impact early on, for sure.”

“What we need to do is make sure we’re really strong as a unit of five,” said Colby’s Blaise MacDonald, last year’s national coach of the year. “We’re very young on the back end, and we need to get a lot of help from our forwards coming back and in the zone. … But it’s going to be a challenge, the least amount of time you spend in your own zone, the better off you’re going to be.”

After leading the NESCAC in scoring last season with 3.17 goals per game a year ago, the Mules should be a more potent group. Junior Kienan Scott, third in conference scoring last season, has been skating with O’Connor and sophomore Justin Grillo during the preseason. Grillo should expect a breakout campaign, and the second line has Spencer Hewson centering J.P. Schuhlen and freshman Logan Clarke. Production from Hewson and Schuhlen could rise with increased responsibility and ice time.

There are very few easy nights in the NESCAC, and MIddlebury and Williams provide good tests right out of the gate for Colby. Middlebury is rebuilding after a rare down season, while Williams is 6-3-2 over the last five seasons against Colby, including the playoffs.

Given Colby is in the unfamiliar spot of defending a league title, the Mules can expect to see everybody’s ‘A’ game this season.

“Ideally, you’d like to say our standards and expectations of self are higher than any opponent will bring,” MacDonald said. “If we can focus on that and our standard, it doesn’t really matter what the opponent brings because we’re going to be harder on ourselves than any opponent is.

“But that’s words. Actions and how you embrace that challenge is what’s important.”

And, last year is last year.

“We’ve always got something to prove, to an extent,” Stahlhuth said. “I think some guys might feel (we’re a target), but at the end of the day we know last year wasn’t a fluke and we want to keep that momentum going into this year.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC

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