Wildcat hockey team back on national stage
No. 2 WSU gets bye into national tournament after a long road back
By Jon McBride | sports editor
The American Collegiate Hockey Association released its final regular-season rankings Wednesday with the Wildcats snagging one of the coveted top-two spots in the region.
The No. 2 spot gives the Weber State University Hockey Team a bye through the ACHA West Regional Tournament, where the No. 3 through No. 10 teams will battle, and into the national tournament in Grand Rapids, Mich., March 17-22.
“There’s definitely a different feeling around the team now,” said WSU Head Coach Steve Soto. “We know we’ve got to step it up. We know how lucky we are to be in this position. There are no easy weeks ahead of us at all.”
It’s been a long road for the Wildcats to get back to national contention. The past two seasons have been filled with frustration and disappointment as the team has gone through a mass exodus of talent, a sub-.500 record, two coaching changes and an internal university audit that forced the team to pay back $9,000 of debt.
But before those two years of turmoil, this WSU Hockey Team
was known throughout the country — or at least throughout the ACHA, which spans
the entire country — as a consistent presence in the national tournament.
A history lesson
The last time the Wildcats were in nationals was 2006. The team had a phenomenal season, going 22-8-2 with a senior-laden roster full of talent. The players and coaches expected nothing short of coming home with the national championship. Those dreams, however, were quickly dashed as the underdog Duquesne University downed the Wildcats in the first game with a 6-1 win. The Wildcats lost nine key seniors from that team which may have contributed to the demise over the next two years.
Current WSU goaltender Kyle Gover was the starter for that 2006 team. He said he’s learned a few things since that one-and-done showing.
“It’s obviously a big event,” he said. “They make a pretty big deal about it. So you can’t afford to get caught up in the moment.”br />
In 2005 the ’Cats advanced to the semifinals of the national tourney, one win away from the national championship game. But the Wildcats lost that semi-final game, painfully, in overtime to end their season.
In 2004 the Wildcats also lost in the semis. This time to the eventual champion University of Ohio. And this one was even more painful for WSU, losing in double overtime.
In 2003, believe it or not, the Wildcats lost in the semis yet again. And, believe it or not, again it was an overtime decision.
In 2002 the Wildcats didn’t qualify for the tournament.
In 2001 the Wildcats had the best season in the history of the program, putting together a stellar regular season and making it all the way to the national championship game. But the ’Cats lost in the finals, taking the No. 2 spot in the country in the final ACHA rankings.
In 2000 the Wildcats lost in the semis and finished No. 3 in
the final rankings.
Time to move forward
It’s not as if the Wildcats are back to square one after the past two painful seasons.
WSU’s top line of Dave Lorenzon, Nick Micek, and Ian Soldano were a part of the 2006 team that went to nationals. The three seniors will surely be looking for some vindication.
Gover, who is having arguably the best season of his career for the ’Cats, was in his freshman season with the 2006 team.
Soto, before he started coaching the Wildcats, skated on the 2000 and 2001 Wildcat teams that went deep into the tournament in perhaps the two best seasons in the history of the program.
WSU Assistant Coach Joe Pfleegor was on the WSU coaching staff from 2000-2006. He’s obviously been a key member of the organization’s success considering he took the last two seasons off from the team — when the ’Cats really struggled — before returning this year.
As for the rest of the team, Gover said he’s trying to educate some of the younger players about what nationals are all about
“They have all played in big games before,” he said, “so
they know what that’s like. But a lot of them haven’t competed in (ACHA)
nationals. I just try to tell them to calm down and that we haven’t done anything
yet. We have to just take it one step at a time and not get ahead of ourselves.”
A brand new season
While the Wildcats have come up with some big wins this season to get where they are, it’s all in the past now. The ’Cats face the task of learning from what they’ve gone through this season while, as Gover said, not getting ahead of themselves and not thinking they’ve already written their ticket to the championship.
“It’s time for a brand new season,” Soto said.
Because WSU got the bye through the regional tournament, it makes it even more like a new season, with nearly a month until the Wildcats’ first tournament game. The Wildcats plan to make these weeks count, picking up the pace in practice and adding some additional off-ice workouts.
“We want to make sure that when it comes to conditioning, we’re better than any team there,” Gover said. “Coming from a high altitude, that should be pretty easy for us to have an advantage in.”
Considering the ’Cats could potentially play five games in
five days, it’s obvious why conditioning is a necessity, especially considering
WSU’s history of overtime games.
Back to where they belong
Both Soto and Gover said this is a major step back in the right direction for the Wildcat hockey program. Both have been instrumental in getting the team back to national contention after two tough seasons. The duo took care of some major issues off the ice and on the ice. Gover, who also acts as team president off the ice, said just knowing the team is going back to nationals is a pretty fulfilling feeling. Soto said just being at nationals gives the program a lot more credibility.
“If the program can continue on like this, it’s going to attract quality players and better teams that are going to want to come play us,” Soto said. “We’ll get a lot of recognition from it for sure.”
Still, even though the Wildcat hockey team has already accomplished a major goal in making it back to the national stage, the ’Cats are going to make the most out of the opportunity.
With so many things turning around already in the program this year, maybe this is the season the ’Cats can finally turn things around at the tournament and snag that illusive national championship.