By Nishant Prasadh
Tech’s ice hockey team opened the 2008-09 season this past weekend with wins over their first two opponents by a combined score of 15-3. The team, which plays Division III hockey and is a member of the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA), finished last season with a record of 11-17. This season began on a high note, as the team defeated Vanderbilt 6-2 on Friday and beat UNC-Charlotte 9-1 on Saturday.
More than marking the start of a new season, the games represented a new era in Tech hockey. Prior to the start of the Vanderbilt game, the players, coaches and fans observed a moment of silence in honor of former head coach Greg Stathis, who passed away in March. A beloved figure in the Tech hockey community, Stathis had led the team since the 1991-92 season.
“It was a very emotional first period [in the Vanderbilt game] for our team. This was the first time in 17 years that Tech hockey had played without Coach Stathis, so it was an emotional game for all of us,” said Assistant Coach Kenny “Sarge” Day.
This season, the promising potential of the new players, combined with the experience and skill of the team’s 11 seniors, has led to a preseason ACHA rNo. 10 ranking in the region.
“Believe me, [Coach Stathis] would love to have this team,” said Head Coach Brian McSparron. “He wouldn’t be getting any sleep. He’d be talking about hockey 24/7.”
Although Stathis’ influence on the team remains strong even after his death, the team has moved on under McSparron, determined to honor Stathis’ memory by continuing to improve the program off the ice and by performing well on the ice.
“[The transition has] been pretty seamless, and that’s what we were looking for in the new coach—someone who would make a very smooth transition. Coach McSparron has known [Stathis] for the past twenty years, and even played under him and coached with him, so it’s been very smooth,” said senior forward Drew Baker.
“Even though he’s gone, we’re going to make sure this program keeps on going strong,” McSparron said.
This year’s first game saw Tech take on the Vanderbilt Commodores last Friday night. The teams last met in the final game of last season, which saw Tech pull out a 3-2 win.
Big hits were common from the start, and three penalties were called during the first 1:02 of the game. As players from both teams fought for the puck in front of the Vanderbilt goal, freshman winger Ben Gartner pulled the puck out and scored 10:12 into the period to give Tech a 1-0 lead.
Shortly afterward, Park provided the highlight of the game when he scored Tech’s next two goals in a span of seven seconds. The first came 11:00 into the period, when he stole the puck and quickly scored. After the ensuing face-off at center ice, Park launched a slap shot into the net from a distance. The goal was the last of the period, so Tech took a 3-0 lead into the break.
In the second period, the momentum repeatedly shifted. Tech maintained pressure on Vanderbilt’s defense by constantly attacking early on, but after a few minutes Vanderbilt started to pick up their own offense, and they scored 7:10 into the period. Vanderbilt continued to attack fiercely afterwards, but Tech sophomore goalie Maxx Lucas made several saves to preserve the 3-1 lead.
“We played down a bit at times due to our inexperience, but later in the game, our stamina helped us to come back and close out the game. We have a lot of team speed, and we were able to keep that up the entire game,” said Day.
Vanderbilt would score once more, but that goal was sandwiched between scores by Tech freshman Zachary Berry and sophomore Derek von Zweck. The final score was 6-2 in favor of the Yellow Jackets.
Day pointed out the team’s all-around balance as a key to the team’s victory. “There’s not much of a drop-off in talent from our first line to our fourth line. All four of our lines played well, and Maxx was stellar in goal. As we get more games under our belts, we’ll start to click more,” Day said.
Facing the physical UNC-Charlotte 49ers, Tech did not back down in the second game on Saturday night; instead, they charged out of the gate, taking advantage of their opponents’ size.
“We’re more of a speed team, so we were able to get around them, and they weren’t able to keep up with us. We can play a physical game, but they were a lot slower, and we were able to take advantage of that and put more pucks in the net,” Stapleton said.
Tech was put on the defensive early when a roughing penalty put UNC-Charlotte on a power play, but the attack amounted to nothing thanks to work by Lucas in goal. Soon after the power play ended, Tech took control of the game, maintaining constant pressure on the 49ers’ defense. They were poised to score, and Tech’s freshman line provided the early fireworks.
The game’s first goal came courtesy of Zaske, who scored 6:25 into the period to give Tech an early lead. About two minutes later, Fritz notched his first goal of the season, and 28 seconds after that, Park rebounded a behind-the-net shot off the goalie’s pads and in for the score.
Center Brian O’Connor scored a few minutes later to make the lead 4-0, the score at the break remained that way. The second period featured several penalties. Tech and UNC-Charlotte combined for 13 in the second period alone. On two occasions, the 49ers had three men in the penalty box.
Senior Tom Porter, a left winger, scored the only goal of the period during a 4-on-4, so the teams headed into the intermission with the Jackets up 5-0. UNC-Charlotte began mounting attacks again, but Lucas repeatedly shut them down.
Tech’s offense continued to score; Park secured his second straight two-goal game when he scored immediately after a face-off 1:54 into the period. Senior winger Dan Sweeney added two goals in a three-minute span to expand the lead to 8-0.
Shortly after a brief scuffle between a UNC-Charlotte player and Tech freshman Ross Cooper, which led to both being ejected, UNC-Charlotte scored on a power play with 4:53 to go. Tech’s Porter put in his second goal with just over three minutes left, and the game ended with a final score of 9-1.
“We have a fast team, but… you can’t back down from physical stuff, because other teams will pick up on that, and they’ll play a physical game. We’ve got to be able to dish it right back. And I’m proud of the way our guys do it; they do it in a clean manner, and that’s the key,” McSparron said.
Eight of the team’s 15 goals came courtesy of freshmen, including four from Park, and Fritz notched four assists over the weekend to emerge as the team leader in points.
“We’re throwing them right into the action, and they’re definitely stepping up and performing, so we’re very encouraged by that,” Baker said.
“It’s a good core for the future, as far as the team is looking for the next three or four years,” said Stapleton.
One of the major concerns was team chemistry on the ice, but the general sentiment was that this was quickly becoming a non-issue.
“We’ve got a lot of new line combinations, a lot of new players, but I definitely think we came together a little bit more [Saturday night] than we did [Friday night]…. I think as long as we keep getting to know each other, we’ll get a lot better,” Baker said.