It was déjà vu for the men’s hockey team as the season ended with a national runner-up finish and a 5-2 loss to Trinity on March 28 in Minneapolis.
Despite finishing as runner-up for the second year in a row and for the fourth time in University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point history, head coach Chris Brooks says the result is not a negative.
“It was extremely positive to put ourselves in the final game of the year,” said Brooks. “Yet it was disappointing to give up a goal in the last three minutes.”
In the national championship, UWSP trailed 2-1 when junior forward Nick D’Avolio scored his third goal of the Frozen Four and tied the game. With 3:52 left in regulation, Trinity scored to take the lead and added two empty net goals to seal the win.
Brooks described the disappointment in the locker room after the game but said there was nothing to dwell on.
“The feeling stings,” Brooks said. “When you get knocked down you focus on that, but I woke up Sunday morning ready to go back to work, focus on what’s next and not focus on the negatives.”
To get to the national championship again was a hard fought journey for the Pointers, and Brooks said it was a harder road this year compared to last year.
“Once you have success you have a target,” Brooks said. “This year was more challenging as we faced injuries and sickness we didn’t have last year. Also playing tough teams that you can’t look over like St. Norbert, Hamline and River Falls.”
UWSP was upset at home in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship game against UW-River Falls before the NCAA tournament began.
“River Falls was the first time this year where I thought we got beat,” Brooks said. “I don’t look at that loss as a negative, but it was the push we needed at that time.”
After the loss to UW-River Falls, UWSP defeated Hamline 4-2, advancing to the Frozen Four. In the national semifinals against Amherst, down 2-0 in the second period, UWSP scored six unanswered goals, including five in the third period, winning 6-2.
Despite falling short of a national championship, it was another historic season for UWSP. The Pointers won the WIAC regular-season championship for the tenth time in program history and the first time since 1999-2000. With a record of 23-7-1, UWSP had back-to-back 20-win seasons for the first time since the 1991-1992 and 1992-1993 seasons. UWSP also had seven players on the WIAC All-First Team.
This resurgence to national prominence started with the hiring of Brooks four years ago, along with his first group of freshmen, who graduate this season as seniors. The senior class finished with a 74-35-8 career record with multiple awards.
Defenseman Kevin Gibson and forward Garrett Ladd each won WIAC Player of the Year award over the last two seasons . Ladd, Gibson and Kyle Brodie were named CCM All-Americans within the past two seasons.
Goaltender Brandon Jaeger made his mark in net setting multiple school records: career wins with 62, saves with 2,037 and games played. Jaeger also won the Elite 89 Award the past two seasons. Along with Gibson, Ladd, Brodie and Jaeger, forwards Scott Henegar, Andrew Kolb and defenseman Justin Hale graduate and left their mark.
“They’ve done a good job with the resurgence of the program and should be proud of all they’ve accomplished,” Brooks said. “They are winners and the common thing between them was that they competed to win.”
After the national championship, the quartet of Gibson, Ladd, Brodie and Jaeger signed professional contracts with the East Coast Hockey League. It is something that happens for many successful players from successful programs, Brooks said.
Despite losing a core group of seniors, UWSP still has many key players returning. All-American Joe Kalisz returns for his senior season after leading the team in points with 32, scoring 18 goals and 14 assists. Along with Kalisz, All-WIAC First Team forward Kyle Sharkey who had 32 points, defenseman Alex Brooks, forwards Lawrence Cornellier and Nick D’Avolio all return with more prominent roles.
Brooks was pleased with these players performances all season. They stepped up in the postseason, and Brooks wants them to build off it for next season with the ultimate goal of winning a national championship.
“The drive is going to be there every year,” Brooks said. “ We have to heal up and have a good summer knowing the hill will be steeper next year.”