One of the nice things about aiming high in life is even a slight miss lands one in a pretty nice place.
The goal of Brown Bears captain Zac Lazzaro when he came to the central Kenai Peninsula last season was to land an NCAA Division I scholarship.
Recently, Lazzaro, 20, committed to play for Division III Utica College in Utica, N.Y. The Pioneers play in the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference, one of the top Division III leagues in the country.
“It’s a high Division III school,” Kenai River Brown Bears coach Oliver David said. “It’s better than some DI programs in some regards.”
One area where Utica particularly excels is in home attendance, where the Pioneers eclipsed the DII and DIII record for home attendance once again last year, averaging 3,253 fans per game.
“It’s an amazing opportunity,” Lazzaro said. “I wanted to play Division I, but I also wanted to cover all my bases in case that didn’t work out so I could still end up in a pretty good place.”
Another good thing about Utica is it is about five hours from Lazzaro’s hometown of Aston, Pa., which is a suburb of Philadelphia. Conference rival Neumann University is located right in Aston, and Lazzaro actually watched Neumann play Utica when he was in Midget hockey.
“It’s not too close, but not too far,” said Lazzaro, who gave credit to parents Donna and Jim Lazzaro for getting him this far.
Lazzaro made the Brown Bears out of training camp for the 2011-12 season.
Coming from one of the country’s most bustling urban areas, David wanted to know if Lazzaro could handle moving to remote Alaska.
Many of his friends wanted to know the same thing. Why move to Alaska when he could pursue his dreams closer to home?
Lazzaro’s answer: Why not Alaska?
“I just thought it was a great opportunity to get out and do something different,” Lazzaro said. “It really wasn’t that big of an adjustment.
“It’s actually harder to adjust when I go home because there are so many more people.”
The Brown Bears have a highly structured organization, requiring players to study, work out and perform community service in addition to competing.
David said Lazzaro took full advantage of that structure.
“Not every 18- or 20-year-old that comes up here is like that,” David said. “For some, it’s enough to be living away from home. Some just come up here to hang out.
“He put in the work every day and he didn’t come up with exactly what he wanted, but he put himself in a good situation.”
Last season, Lazzaro had 27 points in 59 games for the Brown Bears. He was then named captain for this year.
“He was voted the unanimous captain,” David said. “He was voted captain because of the character he displayed last year. Zac was a no-brainer.”
This year, he already has notched 21 points for the Bears in 35 games.
“This has been a really great place to grow up,” Lazzaro said. “Not to say I wasn’t mature before, but this was a great place to learn.
“There are no distractions, unless you go looking for them.”
Lazzaro also thanked his host parents, Byron and Lori Weeks, and host siblings, Alex and Preston, for helping him adjust to the area.
Lazzaro said he will join a veteran team at Utica next season. There will be 15 seniors, and coach Gary Heenan wanted a forward who would understand ice time would only come with a lot of work.
Lazzaro said he has no problem with that, because he has learned at Kenai River that the more he puts into something, the more he gets out of it.
Right now, Lazzaro’s career goal is to become a chiropractor.
He sustained two herniated discs in his lower back when he was 16 years old. He has become close with the chiropractor who helped him tackle the problem, and has helped out at that chiropractor’s office the last two summers.
“It has been a great experience playing here,” Lazzaro said. “Kenai may not have the greatest rink, or we may not get the greatest stuff, but they have a good philosophy and a structure that’s unique.”