Fairfield’s men’s ice hockey team had a superb ending to their season as they advanced to nationals for the second season in a row. Unlike last year, however, the Stags did not earn the automatic bid to the national tournament and were forced to take this possible opportunity to regionals.
Heading into regionals, the team looked to get the national bid. Fairfield had a lot to overcome in order to get this win. They finished second in their conference, the Empire Collegiate Hockey Conference and this second place finish ranked them as number six seed as they headed into the regional tournament.
As the team prepared for the regional tournament, something about the team had changed. For the majority of their season and the entire fall semester, the team was missing a huge piece. Several juniors had studied abroad during the fall, but returned on time for the most vital part of the season.
“We finished off the first semester ranked 4th in the Atlantic and set ourselves up nicely for them to get back and to finish the season strong,” said captain Brendan O’Malley ‘15. “When they came back, it was like they didn’t miss a beat. It was obvious they [juniors] were dying to get back and to lace them up again.”
While the bulk of the team returned and the rest of them conditioned and skilled, the team first took on No. 7 ranked University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown and easily took them down, 6-2, which advanced them to the next round of the regional tournament. The Stags then took on the No. 3 ranked team, Neumann College. The fight was not easy for either team and headed into the third period, the game was tied 2-2, but the Stags impressively took the game 5-2 in the third.
“As the number 6 seed, there were no expectations for us. The league had us written off and thought Neumann was a shoo in,” said O’Malley. “We battled hard for 60 minutes and beat Neumann 5-2 proving we not only deserved a shot at the national title, but that we also were going to make a good run at it.”
The win over Neumann placed them in Pool D for the national tournament down in Grand Rapids, Michigan where they were scheduled to take on three different schools: Colorado State, the University of Tampa and Aquinas College. Ranked as No. 4 in this pool, the Stags first took on No. 1 ranked Colorado State. In the end, there was no winner despite overtime play, but because the team was able to hold Colorado from getting the win, each team was awarded one point in the tournament.
After one tough challenge, another one came as the Stags took on No. 2 Tampa and for the first time in club history, the team got their first national victory, taking down Tampa 4-2. Sophomore Scott Kohlhepp knocked in one of the goals for the team. Kohlhepp has stepped up for the Stags, leading his team with 18 goals.
In their final game against Aquinas, the Stags were not able to execute the win, but saw efforts from team members all over the board, like Kyle Marano ‘19 and goalie Pete Alvaras ‘17. The Stags fell short in their final game of the national tournament, but it is the farthest the team has gotten so far.
“I couldn’t be any more proud of how we stepped up to play a ACHA [American Collegiate Hockey Association] powerhouse in Aquinas. That game could have gone either way and proved that we can skate with the best in the nation,” said O’Malley. “Very disappointing to lose, but also very promising for what the future holds for this program.”
Next season, the team will be graduating seven seniors, but will be returning with stronger freshman, sophomores and juniors. With all efforts and talents on deck, the Stags are already looking to get back on the ice to get the win in their own conference, the regional conference and then, of course, the national tournament. The obstacle of taking the national title gets closer every year, as they are now ranked 7th in the nation of 150 teams for their division.
“I think this team has a great group of guys returning next year and I know they’re going to make a solid run at next year’s national tournament,” said O’Malley, “I’d do anything to be a part of it for one more year.”