They play in an arena littered with banners. NCHA regular-season champions, NCHA playoff champions, NCAA semifinalist, NCAA runner-up.
But that’s where they stop.
Despite their impressive pedigree, the St. Norbert Green Knights have never won a national championship. The closest they have ever come was a heartbreaking 1-0 overtime loss in the 2004 national title game.
Last season, the Green Knights entered the NCAA tournament as many observers’ pick to win it all. After returning all but two of the players from their 2004 NCAA runner-up team, the Knights cruised through the season, earning the No. 1 Western seed and a home quarterfinal game in the national tournament. Nearly unbeatable at home and riding a 26-game unbeaten streak, a trip to the Frozen Four was all but a formality for the team that had established itself as the premier Division III team in the West.
But it was not to be.
A year ago this weekend, the Green Knights were resigned to stand on their home ice and soberly watch visiting St. Thomas celebrate their own trip to the Frozen Four. For St. Norbert, the scoreboard did not read as it should have.
St. Thomas 3, St. Norbert 2.
Fast forward to 2006. This season will mark the fourth consecutive year, and eighth out of the past 10, that the Green Knights have qualified for the NCAA tournament. St. Norbert is once again the No. 1 seed in the West Region, and will once again host an NCAA quarterfinal. The Green Knights haven’t had to play a road quarterfinal since 1997, and along with Middlebury and Norwich, the Green Knights are once again one of the favorites to take home the title.
Although entering the tournament as a favorite is a familiar role for St. Norbert, it will do so without some of the fanfare that has accompanied seasons past. This time there is no winning streak or No. 1 national ranking following the Green Knights around.
Posting an uncharacteristic 3-2 record in their past five games, the Green Knights have even proven to be vulnerable on home ice after losing their final regular-season game to Lake Forest as well as the NCHA championship game to Wis.-Superior.
Those recent slip-ups, as well as last season’s NCAA defeat at the hands of St. Thomas, may serve as blessings in disguise, according to head coach Tim Coghlin.
“I would hope so,” he said. “I think at times we got too wrapped up with their game plans. If you look at those games, you’ll see it wasn’t necessarily their big guys that hurt us, but they received great performances from their support cast players, and that might have been because we were too worried with what they were trying to do.”
As far as this weekend is concerned, Coghlin continued, “It doesn’t matter who we play. One of the things we have been self-critical about all week is that last week I think we spent too much time on our opponent and what they were doing, and that might have cost us.
“We played pretty average.”
Although St. Norbert was unable to win the NCHA playoff championship last weekend, it did little to deter pundits from labeling it as considerable favorites this weekend. The role of favorite is not one Coghlin feels is entirely warranted, however.
“I don’t think that has much to do with us,” he said. “Just look at last weekend. No one has separated themselves this season.”
Regarding lessons learned, Coghlin added that history should be indicative of how tight these teams are on any given day.
“Look at last season. St. Thomas was a team on a mission. You could see it in their eyes.”
Though St. Norbert has been unable to capture a national championship, Coghlin said his Green Knights don’t feel any added pressure as they head into this season’s tournament.
“I wouldn’t say we are approaching it any differently. Every year is so different; every group of guys is so different. The guys we have now don’t know anything about the years they weren’t here.”
What this year’s group of players does know, however, is what it’s like to play in the NCAAs.
“Two-thirds of this team has played in the NCAA tournament, and their experiences have been two-fold,” Coghlin said. “The guys that are now seniors were freshmen when we lost to Norwich, and the guys who are now juniors were there when we beat Plattsburgh but lost to Middlebury. So this group of guys has had positive and negative experiences in the tournament.
“It comes down to being about this group of guys and what they want to do.”
As successful as the Green Knights have been over the past decade, one might contend that they have little left to accomplish save for a national championship, and that anything less would be considered a failure. Coghlin suggests, however, that St. Norbert measures success by more than winning a national title.
“We don’t hang our whole season, or institution, on winning a national championship. Don’t get me wrong — if we are able to have an opportunity to play for one, great, but it’s not everything,” Coghlin said.
“This program has turned out tremendous hockey players, but more than that some tremendous people. It’s good to see many of our former players doing well in their careers after they graduate, and having tremendous lives outside of hockey.”
When it comes to hockey, however, the Green Knights have positioned themselves for another NCAA run. Despite last weekend, St. Norbert has posted a remarkable 86-10-5 record at the Cornerstone Community Center since its opening in 2000 — which bodes well for this weekend.
Numerically, the Green Knights are one of the most formidable teams in the nation, ranking in the top 10 nationally in scoring offense, scoring defense, power-play percentage and penalty-kill percentage. They also carry a roster full of all-conference players, as well as a potential D-III Player of the Year in goaltender Kyle Jones.
History has a habit of repeating itself, which is holding true this season — at least on paper. The Green Knights have the accolades, the statistics, the record and home ice, but although they once again enter the tournament as favorites, there might be one aspect of history this St. Norbert team doesn’t feel like repeating.
23 young men on this edition of the Green Knights stood there as St. Thomas celebrated last season; now it’s up to them and them alone as to whether they feel like standing there and watching someone else celebrate yet again.