The P.A.L. Junior Islanders look like they’ll be sticking around the top echelons of the National Collegiate Development Conference for a while.
In their first two years under Head Coach Mike Marcou, the Jr. Islanders have finished in a three-way tie for fourth and fourth alone, respectively. That was after a 10th-place finish under the previous coach in 2018-19, so the organization has definitely wedged itself into the top pack in swift order.
However, the team is still seeking that elusive deep playoff run to validate these great regular seasons. Granted, they only had one chance, in 2021, after COVID-19 canceled the 2020 playoffs. But after a two-game series win against Philadelphia Hockey Club, they came up just short in a pair of close games with eventual Dineen Cup finalists the Rockets Hockey Club.
Marcou is back for Year 3 and certainly likes the looks of what he expects will be his team roster when the first game day arrives against the Connecticut Jr. Rangers, in terms of being able to remain among the top third of the league in the USPHL’s Tier-II Tuition-Free Junior Hockey League. They can also continue producing NCAA Division I and III talent, as they did with no less than seven players on a younger team last year.
“I am very happy with the new talent we have coming in this year. We have a great core of returners coming back. I am excited to get out and compete,” Marcou said. “We have 12 returning players from last year, which helps with our experience. We brought in some younger players this year with a lot of talent. It will be fun to watch these players develop.”
Among the 12 returning players is returning Captain Spencer Korona, who enters his fourth NCDC season and seventh USPHL season overall. At 133 games, Korona has a very good chance to become the all-time leader in NCDC games played after about half the season and then just build on that record from there. His 51 points through 41 games last year were a career high and represent most of his 87 career points.
Korona is already the Jr. Islanders franchise leader in assists (67) and is second in points, another record he has a very good chance at breaking this season.
“He has been a great leader and has had a lot of success both individually and as a team captain,” said Marcou.
University of Vermont recruit Kyle Mandleur is also going into his fourth NCDC season, having joined the Jr. Islanders towards the end of the 2020-21 season after starting the season with Philadelphia’s inaugural team.
Tyler Crist, who scored 21 points in 38 regular season games in his first NCDC go-round, returns and joins Korona as the only other top 10 scorer back in the lineup.
Also coming back as forwards are ‘03 standout Carter Hanrahan, entering his fifth USPHL and second NCDC season, as well as John Riggins, Will Kormanik and Shane Zarcone.
On the blue line, career Jr. Islander Nick Serio leads a group of four veterans. This will be Serio’s sixth USPHL season and third NCDC campaign, and he is in a position to break current Wesleyan University player (and former career P.A.L. player) Liam Donelan’s team games played record among defensemen, standing at 104.
Mason Vonk enters his second NCDC season and fourth total USPHL campaign, while Reid Shafer and Tyler Rolston are also second-year NCDC players.
Luca Leighton is moving up from the P.A.L. 18U team, Rolston split last season between the USPHL Premier and NCDC Jr. Islanders. Along with Serio’s whole career, these individual progressions illustrate the organization’s commitment to internal promotion and upward mobility in player development.
As for newcomers, Marcou will let that large group of talented players shine as they go, without naming names for now.
“I think that we have good character young men coming in, that have a lot of skill,” Marcou said. “We lost some big pieces from last year’s team. It will be a good opportunity for them to come in and play.”
The Jr. Islanders go up against last year’s top two teams, the Jersey Hitmen and Rockets Hockey Club, 14 times this season, representing almost a third of their schedule. It’s iron against iron so often for the Jr. Islanders, and that remains the case when they face an organization with a strong track record like the Connecticut Jr. Rangers as well, adding another seven games there for almost half their total season, including their opening home-and-home series on Sept. 24 and 25. Philadelphia comes in with a year of NCDC knowledge under its belt, and Utica Jr. Comets have the excitement of a new coach in Louis Educate who is well-versed in the USPHL culture from his time with their Premier squad. No nights off, in other words.
“I am excited to see the league this year,” Marcou said. “The South division is very competitive and every night is a tough match-up.”