A key aspect of Jay Jadowski’s coaching philosophy at Penn State is establishing a strong team culture day in and day out.
And when the #10 Nittany Lions celebrate Senior Day this Saturday, the many players who have helped solidify the culture will be recognized.
Penn State prides itself on a roster that relies heavily on upperclassmen, as evidenced by the seven seniors and the only graduate student on the team.
This solid level of experience helped the team through a winning 2022-23 season that will likely see the Nittany Lions compete in the NCAA Tournament next month.
The potential tournament selection would be the first since the 2019-20 campaign, a season that finally saw the postseason canceled due to the coronavirus.
That year also marked the freshman season for most of this senior, who have since become mainstays for the Nittany Lions on and off the ice.
Jadowski said that the culture his team is always striving to build on has remained the same because of the efforts of these skaters.
“You look at that group as a whole and the impact they had; it’s their awareness of the importance of culture,” Jadowski said. “They were really, really aware of culture, how to cultivate it and how to preserve it.”
For these players, part of preserving the culture has involved overcoming the blue and white’s hardships on and off the ice over the past few seasons. Coronavirus cut short a frustrating 2020-21 period before the team posted a second consecutive sub-. 500 season in 2021-22.
During this roller coaster period, fullback Paul Denables provided reliable leadership and stability throughout.
It was his reliability that earned him team captain honors a year ago, which is why he remained in that role during his fifth and final outing at Happy Valley.
“There are a lot of guys who are good leaders, especially when things are going well,” Jadowski said. “But there are very, very few guys who, when things are going south, are great leaders.”
DeNaples, the only player on the list to start a career in 2018-19, has appeared in 165 contests for the Nittany Lions. Over those many appearances, he has blocked 262 shots and posted a career plus-minus +55.
DeNaples has clearly made a deep impact on the ice, but he extends off the rink as well.
Junior Christian Berger, one of the captain’s colleagues, said that Denables’ voice in the locker room is regularly felt.
“He’s our captain, he’s a great guy,” Berger said. “It’s going to be tough for you if you need him in a good way. I think everyone really appreciates his game and his leadership all year.”
With DeNaples’ leadership affecting his teammates, Gadowsky also noted that the Moscow, Pennsylvania, native didn’t suddenly pick up those traits when he earned a “C.”
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Rather, they’ve been there from the start.
“He was like that from the start. He was just a guy people looked up to and a guy who was comfortable with stepping up,” Jadowski said. “And he did it naturally.”
Stepping up is something DeNaples has done often across many of his collegiate contests, but it’s rare to see him as the main source of offense for a team.
Fortunately for the Nittany Lions, this senior class is full of offensive threats who have been a crucial scorer in their careers, especially this season.
Kevin Wall, Connor MacEachern, Connor McMenamin and Tyler Gratton make up a quartet of forwards who have been longtime Penn State contributors, dating back to the shortened 2019-20 season. Three years later, all four had evolved into integral parts of the line-up.
MacEachern said the group’s ability to have fun together but also work hard alongside is what made the four-year trip so memorable.
“It’s so special to be able to play with some of your good friends,” said MacEachern. “We know what each other is [is] There is, but we’re not afraid to give each other shit.”
When they’re not sharing a laugh during practice, MacEachern and his teammates form the heart of Penn State’s offensive tackle instead.
The trio of Wall, MacEachern, and McMenamin was particularly notable this season due to their frequent pairings as linemates. Each striker scores 20 or more points with two games left to play.
Wall has been a particularly star for quite some time, leading the team in goals each of the past two seasons. But teammates McKearn and McMenamin also enjoyed solid career periods, with 72 points and 62 points, respectively.
And while Graton’s scoring stats may not be quite the same as those of his fellow VIPs, his influence is also routinely felt.
Gratton was a solid contributor over his four seasons, amassing 33 points in that span. However, his biggest selling point is the physique he brings to the table.
Never afraid to set the tone and take opposing skaters to task as they try to put the stick to the puck, Gratton brings grit that proves effective against top-level competition within the Big Ten.
This is supported by his 33 penalties in his career, where Gratton’s aggression can sometimes send him to the sin bin. However, having scored only 66 penalty minutes during this period, Gratton’s strikes are rarely harmful.
One of the last pieces of Gratton’s experience at Penn State was the chance to play with his younger brother, freshman linebacker Dylan Gratton, this season.
“It was so much fun, not many people get to experience that,” Gratton said of playing with his brother.
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One player the younger Gratton may have learned throughout this season, besides Tyler, is defenseman Kenny Johnson.
Johnson is another player who has been with the team since the 2019-20 season and played his most prominent role last season when he skated in 31 contests and totaled five points.
Conversely, this season saw the Ann Arbor, Michigan producer appear in only two shows. Even with this erratic ice time, Berger says Johnson’s demeanor and work ethic are just as important as anyone on the list.
“When you talk about leadership, he’s a big part of that. He makes it fun to come to the rink,” Berger said. “He works hard, and we’re lucky to have him in the locker room.”
Players like Johnson have been with the team for some time, but two of the newer Nittany Lions will also be honored on Senior Day.
Ture senior Linden and graduate student Ashton Calder were both transferred to Happy Valley ahead of this season after establishing themselves on previous stops.
Linden was solid as a rock during his time with RPI, while Calder contributed to postseason success with both Lake Superior State and later North Dakota.
Calder’s 172 career tackles is among the most for an active player, and his nine goals for the Nittany Lions this year gave the team more offensive depth than it already had.
Calder’s “moxie” was noted by Jadowski, saying he believed the experience playing for several schools had made him a better player.
Gadowsky also said that Calder, though a fresh face in the locker room, isn’t afraid to lead if the need arises.
“He’s really smart, and he’s very aware that he doesn’t walk on his toes,” said Jadowski. “He doesn’t want to be the first to say something, but if no one has said it, he’ll look around and step in.”
Calder has certainly integrated himself into the team, but Linden may have seemed more comfortable in the blue and white.
After starting the 2021-22 season tallying 39 RPI, Linden hit the ground running at Penn State.
He is currently tied with Wall for the team-leading 24 points while also proving himself a weapon on point by winning 58.1% of face-offs.
Jadowski said Linden’s technical abilities were a major asset.
“We really needed another shooting position on the right to win the tie, and it was excellent,” said Jadowski. “We are very happy with him, he is also a very mature and intelligent guy. He has been fit fantastically on and off the ice.”
Earlier in the season, Gadowsky said, Calder and Linden were acquired in the gate because the coaching staff thought they fit the team’s scheme and culture.
Now, heading into the final week of regular season play, both players have proven to be influential players for the Nittany Lions.
Whether it’s this duo, who spent just one year at Penn State, or someone like DeNaples who has a record five seasons under Gadowsky, all eight players who will be recognized against Wisconsin on Saturday made a powerful impact on the program.
Senior Day festivities are sure to bring a lot of passion to the ice. However, there is still a game to be played as well.
With that in mind, Berger said he and his teammates want to take the win to honor the outgoing class.
“They’re young guys that we look up to. It’s crazy to see them so old,” Berger said. “We want to win for these guys because they’ve done so much for the program and for us personally. Everyone in the locker room really appreciates what they’ve done.”
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