“They scored, we didn’t.”
Those are the words of freshman forward Michael Periera, who commented on the Michigan club hockey team’s performance at the American Collegiate Hockey Association’s national tournament two weeks ago.
The team has been consistent contenders in the ACHA tournament since its first playoff bid in 1998-99, a short four seasons after the conception of the team in 1994. From a field of more than 110 Division II teams, just 16 teams are invited to participate in the tournament – so the invite is quite an honor. Although the team lost in the finals to Georgia’s Life University last year, the team was the top-ranked team going into the tournament this year.
The team arrived in Anaheim, Calif. on Feb. 24, visiting Southern California’s campus for the tournament. It spent Tuesday practicing and played the first game on Wednesday, against Virginia’s Liberty University.
After a slow start, the team was down 5-2 at the end of the first period, but with the help of four powerplay goals from senior team treasurer Derek Schlonsky, it managed to tie the game at six. Liberty managed to eke out another goal, and forced Michigan to begin tournament play with a loss.
“We went into it thinking we were going to win, so we were pretty disappointed with that first loss,” Periera said. “We got a little cocky.”
The second game was against Weber State. Again, the club was unable to pull through with a win, losing 4-2 to the eventual third-place finisher.
“We were high in our region, and favored to win, but it was hard to prepare our rookies for the atmosphere at nationals,” team captain and president John Nadzam said. “With about 14 rookies and three new goalies, the adjustment was tough.”
Michigan did manage a win in its final game against Penn State, beating the Nittany Lions 4-2, but it wasn’t enough to land the team near the top of the pack. Only the top four teams get to move on from the round robin setup of the first half of the tournament to the bracket play of the final three games, so the Wolverines had to head home with a weak 1-2 record.
“We told them all year that nationals are totally different, but they had to see it themselves,” Nadzam said. “Our four seniors had 10 goals, but there just wasn’t much production from the younger players. They weren’t ready for the change from the regular league games.”
Regular season games are played against the five other members of the Great Midwest Hockey League. Two other members are Indiana and Michigan State.
“In league play, we like to face Miami of Ohio, because they’re a really clean team,” Nadzam said. “When we played them in the regional championship there was only one penalty in the entire game.
“We came back from a two-goal deficit in the last two minutes of the game, but eventually lost in overtime. Still, that was a great game to play in, loss or not.”
Despite the disappointing end to this season, Michigan is likely to be a heavy favorite at next year’s nationals. The team is losing four seniors this year – including Nadzam and Schlonsky, who were both All-Americans last year – but is confident that its experience this year will help it overcome those key losses and regain its spot at the top of national rankings.
“There were a whole lot of positives this season, a whole lot of fun,” Nadzam said. “There are 20 guys coming back, and they’ve learned from this season. They’re going to go into next season with a better mindset, in better shape, and I think they’re going to do something great.”