Sabres turn rebuild year into championship season

Marian capped a season played amid a pandemic with its first conference championship since 2002. (Photo courtesy of Marian athletics)

Victory had eluded the grasp of Marian’s men’s hockey team once again on a Friday night in late February. The losing streak was now at four games.

Forget about the possibility of winning a championship. The Sabres weren’t even sure if they would make the NCHA tournament.

“There wasn’t a lot of opportunity left,” Marian head coach Zach Gaynor said. “The need to salvage the season was there, but there were definitely thoughts of what the rest of the season was going to look like. Are we going to make the playoffs?”

Over the next 11 games, that question was answered, the Sabres (12-7) winning nine times during an impressive stretch of hockey that ended with them winning the Harris Cup for the first time in nearly two decades.

In a season played amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a season where Marian wasn’t even sure if it would play hockey – a lot of teams in NCAA Division III didn’t play — the Sabres found a way to navigate the challenges and capture the title with a two-game sweep of the Milwaukee School of Engineering last weekend at home.

“It was pretty 50-50,” Gaynor said about playing a season. “There was a lot of hope for it, but I think looking at the realistic side of things, we probably didn’t see it come to fruition.”

But the school found a way to make it happen.

“It was a matter of seeing what the county would let us do and what the school was willing to take on as far as responsibility goes,” Gaynor said. “We’re a pretty small school. We don’t have a lot of resources, but we were able to figure out a way to get it done. It was the best thing that could have happened for our program. We were grateful to have a year when a lot of teams didn’t.”

Turning the opportunity to have a season into a title required shifting gears during that losing streak the team endured in February.

This was supposed to be a rebuild year. The Sabres had 11 freshmen on the roster. The lone senior was transfer Andrew Frojelin out of Nazareth College.

“We were very young and I was making the mistake of coaching my team and structuring the team as if we had a lot of veterans,” Gaynor said. “Once it clicked that we were doing things the wrong way, we were able to turn the corner and have some success.”

Big changes were made, including in film sessions.

“We stopped watching video on ourselves and watched it on other teams. We took a lot of pressure off the guys,” Gaynor said. “We made everything more about teaching moments rather than a demand on expectations and being more result reliant. It was a complete overhaul and the guys had more enjoyment with it.”

One of the most interesting aspects of this team was that only two players, Parker Colley and Ty Enns, finished in the top 20 in scoring. 

Colley finished with eight goals and 16 assists while Enns racked up 11 goals and 13 assists. They were among five players in the league tied for 20th in points.

“We saw more team play in the second half of the year,” Gaynor said. “The most rewarding part was seeing them play their best and play together. That ultimately led to what we got at the end of the year.”

Gaynor praised his team’s mental toughness and resiliency and reminded his players throughout the season to enjoy the time they had on the ice.

“Once we got on the ice, life was normal again. It was as if COVID wasn’t an issue,” Gaynor said. “At the end of the day, nobody could take that way from us.”

And no one can ever take away the championship either.

“To end the season with a win and and on a high note was great,” Gaynor said. “It’s been a long time coming for this group. There was a lot of learning and development. A lot of guys have come and gone and a lot of the alumni paved the way for us to be in that championship. It was really exciting for the players. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”