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Drew Bonifant

Drew Bonifant: Former teammates are net gains for UNH, Dartmouth

  • Rensselaer forward Ryan Haggerty is taken down and into Dartmouth goaltender Cab Morris by defenseman Brad Schierhorn during a November game. The Big Green won the ECAC contest at Thompson Arena in Hanover. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)
  • Dartmouth goalie Cab Morris shares in the joy of a Dec. 2011 victory with the young fans who line the player’s walkway. (Valley News - Polina Yamshchikov)
  • University of New Hampshire goalie Casey DeSmith guards the net against University of Massachusetts Lowell; Friday November 16, 2012.<br/><br/>(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor Staff)
  • University of New Hampshire men's hockey goalie Casey DeSmith ; Friday November 16, 2012.<br/><br/>(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor Staff)

They’ve got the highest-profile positions on the two best teams in the Granite State. The University of New Hampshire and Dartmouth men’s hockey teams are among the top 10 in the country, and Casey DeSmith and Cab Morris are the goalies they’re banking on to keep them there. Their names hover at the top of several statistical categories. Save percentage. Goals-against average. Shutouts.

But before they competed on the stat sheets, they battled each other on the depth chart. The Morris and DeSmith story goes back beyond college, back to juniors in Indiana, where both players were looking for the opportunities they’re taking advantage of now.

New Hampshire’s two best college hockey goalies were originally on the same team, fighting for the starting goaltending spot for the United States Hockey League’s Indiana Ice. They were together only one year, the 2009-10 season, but it was a competitive stint as both players tried to make an impression in their first year of juniors, knowing any career advancement was on the line.

“We definitely both competed hard in practice, because we both wanted the starting job,” said DeSmith, currently 10-2-2 for UNH with a .939 save percentage and 1.82 goals-against average. “We definitely pushed each other.”

The players came from different backgrounds (DeSmith, a sophomore at UNH, is from Rochester, while Morris, a junior, is from Wilmette, Ill.) and arrived with different skill sets. Morris, a junior, brought a 6-foot-3, 195-pound frame and size-based game, while DeSmith, a 5-foot-11, 170-pounder, relied more on quickness and agility.

They were cut from different molds, but thrust into the same situation. Indiana Coach Jeff Blashill, a former goalie himself, told the two they’d share time in net, and stuck to his plan, with Morris and DeSmith playing a few games then sitting while the other saw action.

It was a difficult routine to get used to, but it instilled in the players an urgency to bring their best to practice and to games whenever they got the chance.

“Our coach was really clear with what he wanted to do,” said Morris, 4-1-1 for Dartmouth with a 1.97 GAA and .917 save percentage. “And we knew we had to compete night in and night out in practice and the whole year.”

As the season progressed, the situation began to settle. Morris was playing better, on his way to a 2.57 GAA and save percentage of .913, while DeSmith was at 3.18 and .897, respectively. Morris took over the job when DeSmith fell ill with mononucleosis, but an injury late in the season sidelined Morris and allowed DeSmith to regain the job until Morris returned.

The goalies’ efforts lifted Indiana into the playoffs, where Morris got the nod in net. The fickle playing time situation continued, however, as Morris was pulled for DeSmith following a pair of losses to Cedar Rapids. DeSmith led Indiana to three straight wins and the series victory, and stayed in net as the Ice eventually bowed out to Green Bay in the second round.

“I came into the playoffs and I played really well and really consistently, which is what I hadn’t been able to do the whole year going into that,” DeSmith said. “Just the confidence under my belt, that I could play like that, was huge.”

The one season was enough for Morris, who drew interest from Dartmouth and was lured to Hanover the next season. DeSmith, on the other hand, was passed over by colleges, and after another season with the Ice, during which he improved his GAA to 2.54 and save percentage to .920, he was headed back to his home state to join the Wildcats.

“The experience of playing against the good players like that was unbelievable,” he said. “Just learning how to make myself better.”

The days in juniors are over, but the lessons have stayed with both players. One is time management. Both Morris and DeSmith attended Cathedral High School in Indianapolis while on the team, and they had to deal with long days of schoolwork and practice, as well as road trips that were even longer than the ones they go on today and resulted in the loss of what Morris approximated to be 50 days of school.

“It was tough for both of us, the time demand was like playing for a minor league hockey team,” he said. “The time demand, the travel. (You learn) to manage your schedule and perform on the ice when you have school and other things to juggle.”

DeSmith and Morris also got acquainted with big-time hockey, as the intensity and skill level of the USHL provided an easy transition into the competitive world of college hockey.

“That league is a really demanding league,” Morris said, “in terms of mental toughness and being able to play a good game in a high-pressure environment, 60, 70 times a year.”

They’re getting the job done at the next level, too, and they may get a shot against each other on Sunday, when the Wildcats visit the Big Green. DeSmith is used to going up against Morris, but this time the two would share the ice instead of fight for it.

“Hopefully ?? I’ll get to play against him, and we’ll have a fun little duel,” DeSmith said. “It’s definitely cool that we’re both in New Hampshire, and hopefully we get to play against each other at some point.”

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or abonifant@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @dbonifant.)

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