As the only conference playing for a championship in the east, the UCHC has worked through all the challenges of playing a hockey season during a pandemic. Adjustments on many scales have been made and as the season winds down to the playoffs beginning this week, the Stevenson Mustangs are a serious contender that hopes the title can be won where it belongs – on the ice.
“It was been a crazy season,” said head coach Dominick Dawes. “We have a really young squad that has been committed from the fall to play and grow as a team. As coaches, I think across the league we all get it and are living the challenges every day. After finishing our one remaining regular season game this weekend against Nazareth, we are locked into the top two spots with Utica. Eight teams will be in the playoffs with consideration to travel restrictions before we branch out a little wider for the semifinals and final. The quarterfinals will be next Wednesday with the semifinals on Saturday and the championship game on the Monday after Easter. With everything our team is through we are focused on the title and we all hope we can finish this the right way on the ice.”
Following the game with Nazareth, a 6-3 win, Stevenson is 10-2-1 overall and 7-1-1 in UCHC play giving them 22 points and an .833-win percentage in the league. Some might find the strong results a bit surprising considering the make-up of the roster which boasts 15 freshmen skating regularly and three of them amongst the team leaders in goals and points.
“They were good players before they got here to Stevenson,” said Dawes. “We have given them the opportunity to play and to make mistakes as part of their development. They have matured quite a bit because of being put in all kinds of different situations. It is great to see the growth and the results come together for what is still a young program here.”
Among the outstanding newcomers are forwards Mac Lowry and Eric Olson along with defenseman Blake Colman. Lowry leads the Mustangs in goals with nine while Colman leads the defensive group with 12 points in 12 games played.
“Those three have adjusted well to the college game so far,” stated Dawes. “Our team continues to mature, and our six seniors have helped that growth. The team really has come together well through all of the challenges and enjoy their time together whether practicing or playing the games.”
Another factor in Stevenson’s success is the emergence of Ryan Kenny in goal. The sophomore has been solid in goal this season with an 9-1-1 record, .924 save-percentage and a 2.08 goals-against average. Kenny’s rock-solid play has garnered the attention of his teammates and boosted the confidence of a team hungry for a title.
“Ryan was thrown right into it last season as a freshman,” noted Dawes. “He has come in this season dialed-in and 100% focused. He is usually the first kid on the ice working on things and I believe the fall skills sessions were really helpful for him in preparation for the season. There is complete confidence in Ryan in the locker room and the team believes he gives us a chance to win every game.”
The final days of the sprint-like season are here at the end of March and the determination of playoff opponents and venues coming after the regular season concludes with or without make-up games lost to COVID protocols. By April 5, the 2020-2021 UCHC men’s ice hockey champion will be crowned.
“We haven’t changed our goals with the exception of not having a national tournament,” said Dawes. “We always compete for two championships – the MAC and the UCHC. We think we have wrapped up the MAC title which is our athletic conference with some other teams that playing the UCHC, and we are focused on winning the second championship. It would be a big step forward for this still young program. We have been flexible by necessity in adapting to schedules and circumstances many times outside our control. The administration and athletic departments across the league have found a way to enable us to play and be safe. Now the best ending possible would be for a champion to be decided on the ice in the next week. Hopefully we earn that opportunity.”
The title journey starts Wednesday afternoon when Stevenson hosts Neumann.