Entering the 2002-2003 Division III season, the polls and the pundits agreed that the usual teams would be contending for the title at the end. The USCHO preseason poll, released October 16, 2002, contained no surprises. It ranked the top five teams as:
No. 1 Norwich
No. 2 Wisconsin-Superior
No. 3 RIT
No. 4 St. Norbert
No. 5 Middlebury
Other teams such as Plattsburgh, which have regularly visited the semifinal round of the NCAA playoffs, were not far behind.
But as the season went along, opinions began to change as perennial powers were showing a remarkable level of vulnerability. And several teams which had been lingering around the middle of the pack in the various leagues were percolating to the top.
Look at these examples:
Such events got fans talking. Quietly at first, but then louder and louder, questions were heard around the rinks.
Has parity finally come to Division III hockey?
Has the era of a few teams dominating the leagues ended?
Are lower Division I leagues like the MAAC and CHA draining off the top talent from D-III?
Is this the year we finally see different teams playing at the end of the season?
As we head into the NCAA championship this weekend, the answer is … maybe.
After highly competitive league playoffs, three new teams did earn titles this season.
Elmira recaptured the ECAC West crown from RIT after a six-year drought.
Trinity became only the second team ever to win the NESCAC championship since that league starting holding playoffs in 2000 (Middlebury had won it each of the first three years, and Trinity had to wrench the trophy out of the hands of Middlebury at Kenyon Arena to earn the honor).
Oswego also ended a long championship drought, winning the SUNYAC for the first time in 12 years. Plattsburgh held the title for the last six years, and eight of the last 11.
So it was somewhat of a surprise to see several perennial NCAA tournament participants not get invitations to the Big Dance this year. Plattsburgh, RIT, and Wisconsin-Superior all ended their seasons earlier than normal, and broke long stretches of annual NCAA playoff invitations.
When the dust settled from a wild one-game quarterfinal round, the four teams that emerged were an interesting mix of old and new. The usual cast of characters is back, represented by perennials Middlebury and Norwich.
But two new teams are also in the mix this year, two teams that haven’t been playing on the last weekend of the season in a long time, or ever. St. Norbert and Oswego represent what could be the forefront of the changing of the guard.
This year is Norwich’s fifth trip to the semifinal round, and second time hosting the festivities. Middlebury isn’t any slouch either, marking its seventh opportunity to keep playing during the last weekend of the season.
At Oswego, no one involved with the current team remembers being in the semifinals, but the Lakers did make it that far in 1987, when they lost to Plattsburgh in the championship game.
That leaves St. Norbert as the only team involved this year that has never been to the semis before. Four of the last seven years, the Green Knights have played in the quarterfinals, each time failing to advance. St. Norbert finally got that cross off its back this year, and advances to the party that it has sought for so long.
So this year’s final four is a mix: two teams that have been to the NCAA championship a lot over the last few years, and two teams who have finally made it.
Maybe the old guard is changing after all.