Needham’s Mike Cox making an impressive debut on the ice at Wentworth Institute

Mike Cox bursts upon scene at Wentworth

Wentworth Institute of Technology hockey coach R.J. Tolan  knew he had a talented player in freshman center Mike Cox .

The problem: finding a place for the former Needham High star in a lineup deep at the position.

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The Bay State Conference MVP in 2009 and a member of the Rockets’ Division 1 state championship team in 2008, Cox didn’t play in Wentworth’s opener Nov. 2, a 2-2 standoff at Fitchburg State.

“The only chance to get him in the lineup was on the wing, and I wanted him on the ice,” said Tolan, a Waltham native and former defenseman at University of Massachusetts Lowell. “Some players struggle when you move them around, but I had a comfort level with Mike.”

In the second game of the Federal Credit Union Shootout at Fitchburg, Cox made his college debut a night to remember: two goals and three assists in the Leopards’ 7-2 victory over Worcester State.

That performance earned him ECAC Northeast Rookie of the Week honors. Through six games, the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Cox was leading Wentworth (4-1-1) in scoring (4 goals, 4 assists) and had a plus-7 rating.

“R.J. said I’d be in the lineup sooner than later, and when I got in, I wanted to prove that I should be there,’’ said Cox, who plays both wings for the Division 3 program. “Getting the award was a nice confidence boost.’’

Cox, a captain-elect his senior season at Needham High, chose instead to play junior hockey with the Hingham-based Boston Advantage (Midget AAA Elite).

He moved on to the Fresno (Ca.) Monsters of the North American Hockey League; last season, he skated with the Bridgewater Bandits of the Eastern Junior Hockey League.

“Mike was a great player for me and I was sorry to lose him,’’ said Needham High’s veteran coach, Bill Guisti.  

“He’s probably the best puck-moving player I’ve ever coached. Mike was always a pass ahead of the play and could find the open man, which is why I had him on the point on our power play.

“He was the best player in our league as a junior, and I remember attending a Needham youth hockey banquet when Mike was playing in Bantams where he received the award for most outstanding player,’’ Guisti said.

Cox said leaving his Needham High teammates and coaches was a tough decision.

“I thought about it for a long time. But I wanted the national exposure to the college coaches, which I got with the Advantage,’’ he said. “Being with Fresno and Bridgewater gave me a chance to be recruited by a Division 1 college.’’ 

That scenario didn’t quite materialize, but Tolan and his staff already had their sights set on Cox after watching him play for Fresno at the NAHL Showcase in Blaine, Minn.

“I knew I wanted to go to school in the Boston area, and I’m glad it’s Wentworth. R.J. has our backs and you have to bring your best game every night,’’ said Cox. “I still need to work on my skating. I’ve always been a strong defensive center, so it’s nice to get a bunch of points early.’’

Although his own playing career was shortened by an injury during his senior year at UMass Lowell, Tolan has sustained his passion for hockey behind the bench.

A four-year Catholic Conference All-Star at Matignon High in Cambridge, Tolan broke in as middle school coach at the Dexter School in Brookline.

“I realized then I enjoyed teaching the game and interacting with young people,’’ said Tolan, who was coached by his father, Robert, in the Waltham youth program.

Tolan, previously an assistant at Bentley University and Northeastern, was the associate head coach at Wentworth for the 2005-’06 season, and moved up to the top spot the next year.

His junior and senior players work co-op jobs as part of their education, and can’t get to every practice, he said. “The teams we compete against probably don’t have their coach calling them during their lunch break to explain the forecheck,’’ said Tolan. “We’ve even picked up players at their jobs on the way to road games.

“That’s what makes our team pretty special. I admire people who work hard to succeed, like my dad, who has his own contracting business, and passing on that work ethic to my players has been gratifying,’’ added Tolan.

He was honored as the league’s coach of the year last season, when the Leopards were 21-7-1, captured the ECAC Northeast Division title, and won the program’s first NCAA Division 3 tournament game.

Campus achievers

Sudbury’s Scott Prozeller, a two-time captain of the men’s soccer team at Harvard, earned his second straight selection to the All-Ivy League first team. The Noble & Greenough graduate was one of three Crimson players to start all 17 games this fall, registering a goal and an assist in the midfield. He was a second team pick as a sophomore.

Wellesley High grad Mary Louis Dixon , a junior captain at Stonehill College, helped spark the Skyhawk women’s basketball team to a season-opening 67-62 overtime victory over Northeast-10 Conference foe Saint Anselm. The 5-foot-4 point guard’s line: 16 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 steals. Through three games, she was averaging 13.0 points and 5.0 rebounds per game.

Kudos to the Lasell College women’s soccer team, which won the program’s first NCAA Division 3 tournament game, a major upset in the first round, 3-1, over Amherst earlier this month. Head coach Vito La Francesca,  a former Babson College assistant, also previously coached at Beaver Country Day and Watertown High. His assistant at the Newton college, Jim Swift, was head coach at Mount Alvernia High School.