It’s time to close the books on another season of Division III hockey, and what a season it’s been. There are too many highlights to name them all, but here are some of the ones that reminded me why I love this sport.
Highlights (and one lowlight)
1. Plattsburgh State’s head coach Bob Emery said after winning the national championship, “I’m gonna live this one. If you don’t believe me, come up to Plattsburgh in the off season.”
And live it he should. It was a storybook season for the Cardinals, or maybe a soap opera script would be more like it.
The season opened with a hazing scandal that resulted in the suspension of several players. Senior forward Eric Weidenbach never got out of the doghouse and was removed from the team at mideason.
The Cards, depleted by injuries, went just 3-3 between December 5 and January 13, including an embarrassing 8-2 loss to RIT in the championship game of their own tournament.
But Plattsburgh turned things around with a 3-0 win over Middlebury on January 16, which kicked off an 18-1 drive to the national title. In the NCAA tournament, the fourth-ranked Cardinals defeated the number three team (Middlebury), the number two team (Wisconsin-Superior) and the previously undefeated and number one team (RIT).
2. RIT was a game away from accomplishing what no other Division III has ever done – cap off an undefeated regular season with a national title. The Tigers ran out of gas in the national championship game, but what a season it was. RIT, picked sixth in the USCHO.com pre-season poll, wound up 27-1-1.
In two seasons at RIT, Wayne Wilson is 49-8-2. He recently won the ACHA’s Edward Jeremiah Award for Division III coach of the year.
3. New England College had a storybook season as well. The Pilgrims started out 0-2 and outscored 20-1 in their season-opening trip to Norwich and Middlebury. They returned to Norwich for the ECAC East finals and defeated second seeded Salem State and the top-seeded and defending national champion Cadets to take the league title and advance to the NCAA tournament.
4. Another Cinderella season occurred at Bethel, where the Royals qualified for the post-season for the first time in 15 years, and came within a goal of making the nationals.
Bethel beat out Augsburg on the last day of the regular season to advance to the MIAC semifinals, where it split with top-seeded St. Thomas, and then won the minigame to advance. The win over St. Thomas snapped a 33-game losing streak dating back to 1987.
In the MIAC finals, the Royals tied St. John’s twice before finally bowing out in the minigame, 1-0. Amazing.
5. Two other programs made waves in just their third year of varsity play. Lebanon Valley won the ECAC Northeast championship and advanced to the NCAA tournament, and Manhattanville made it to the ECAC West title game, upsetting Elmira in the conference semifinals. It really wasn’t much of an upset, however, since the Valiants split with the Soaring Eagles during the regular season.
Watch out for both these teams next season!
6. I’ve documented some of the biggest surprises this season, and here’s one of the biggest disappointments — Wisconsin-Stevens Point. The Pointers nearly edged out Plattsburgh for the top spot in the USCHO.com pre-season poll, finishing second by a single point.
But Point could never pull it together, finishing 17-12 and never stringing together more than three wins in a row after November. UWSP failed to sweep any weekend regular season NCHA series (I don’t think that’s ever happened before) and finished in fifth place.
Norwich’s Keith Aucoin is going to need a U-haul to cart away all the awards he’s won during his four years as a Cadet. The senior from Chelmsford, Mass., is the all-time leading scorer in Norwich history with 240 points. He’s USCHO.com’s Division III Player of the Year, recapturing the award he also claimed as a sophomore. His junior season, Aucoin helped lead the Cadets to their first NCAA title.
Aucoin was also named Division III Player of the Year by the American Hockey Coaches Association, was ECAC East Player of the Year, and won the inaugural Joe Concannon Memorial Award, to be given annually to the best American-born Division II-III college hockey player in New England.
Quite a haul.
All-Lerch ™ Team
Here they are — one man’s opinion of the best D-III had to offer this season. It was quite a task this year, as I had a great deal of trouble getting my list down to a final six. But here they are:
Keith Aucoin, Senior, Norwich University — The consensus best player in the nation, he tallied 56 points this season.
Derek Hahn, Junior, RIT — On a team filled with stars, he was the most valuable player. Hahn had 61 points this season and helped quarterback the most lethal power play in college hockey.
Ivan Prokic, Senior, Wisconsin-Superior — I only saw him play during the Division III Frozen Four, but he was one of the best forwards I saw all season. He scored eight game-winning goals to lead the nation, and had 38 points overall.
Adam Kragthorpe, Sophomore, Wisconsin-River Falls — The first defenseman ever named NCHA Player of the Year (sharing the award this season with St. Norbert’s Adam Sedgwick), he had 28 points.
Jerry Galway, Junior, RIT — The runner up to Aucoin in this year’s USCHO.com Player of the Year balloting, he scored 58 points and was an amazing +32 on the season. He helped run an RIT power play that scored over 40% of the time.
Niklas Sundberg, Junior, Plattsburgh — The Cardinals rode Sundberg to the national championship, as he shut down the top three teams in the nation, outdueling some outstanding netminders in the process. He finished with a .926 save percentage and a 2.27 GAA.
Here are some guys who were high on my list, but failed to claim the national recognition they deserved:
Mike Bournazakis, Sophomore, RIT — Playing in the shadow of big brother Peter, who was a first-team All American and ECAC West Player of the Year, all Mike did was lead the nation in scoring this season with 71 points.
Jason Boudrow, Junior, Tufts — He led the nation in scoring virtually the entire season, finishing with 68 points. Boudrow lost out on the scoring title when his team was upset in the ECAC Northeast playoffs, denying him the opportunity to play a few more games.
Ryan McIntosh, Senior, Augsburg — He saw more shots (779) than any other leading goaltender. His .910 save percentage was as good or better than the two western goalies named All-American.
As I write this, the Division III college hockey season is a mere 189 days away. Who are the leading contenders to win it all in 2002?
As Plattsburgh Coach Bob Emery told me in his press conference after wining this year’s crown, “I guess we’ll be the front runners next season.”
Who can argue with that?
But watch out for Wisconsin-River Falls, who had 18 underclassmen this season and made it to the national semifinals. RIT returns most of the key components that led it to the best record in college hockey. Middlebury, Wisconsin-Superior, St. Norbert and a half dozen other traditional powerhouse programs will be in the running, plus a dark horse or two.
Can we drop the puck yet?
I’ll keep this short and sweet this season, as opposed to the misty farewell I wrote last year. Thanks to:
- The coaches and players for a fantastic season
- The staff at USCHO.com
- My family for their support
- And, most importantly, the Division III readers and fans for your enthusiasm for the greatest game on the planet.
Have a great summer!