Hockey ends season with wins at ACHA national tournament

Tech’s hockey team concluded a memorable 2008-09 campaign by competing at the ACHA Division III National Championship tournament in Rochester, NY. Although they lost their first two games in the four-day tournament, they ended the season on a high note by winning their final two games to close out their season with a final record of 24-4.

Head Coach Brian McSparron considered the season, his first as Tech’s head coach after several years as an assistant, to be a complete success. “All of our team goals were accomplished this season. [It was] a fine tribute to the leadership of this team and the desire to honor Coach Greg [Stathis] with a true winning season,” he said in his final Coaches’ Corner interview of the year.

A week after achieving the foremost of those goals—winning the Savannah Memorial Health Hockey Classic on January 16-17—Tech defeated Georgia 7-5 in Duluth to complete the season sweep of their three games against the Bulldogs.

Two weeks later, the team traveled to Virginia for a three-day tournament in Richmond. In the first game, they took on Loyola College, a team that had been ranked as high as third in the Division III South region standings. Tech built a 2-1 lead through two periods, thanks to goals by senior Drew Baker and freshman Ryan Fritz and solid play by sophomore goalie Maxx Lucas; however, a slew of penalties in the third period led to a pair of Loyola power play goals, and that proved to be the difference as the Jackets fell 3-2. Tech recovered quickly, though, and won their next two games against Richmond University and Neumann College, scoring seven goals in each game.

The regular season came to an end on February 7, when the team took on Appalachian State in Alpharetta. That game served as Senior Night for the players, as the team’s graduating members were recognized in a pre-game ceremony. Senior winger Tom Porter notched a hat trick, and senior Drew Baker, defenseman B.J. Stapleton, and center Christian Gattung each recorded an assist as the Jackets rolled to a 9-5 victory.

With the win, the Jackets also secured the No. 2 in the final rankings for the South region, resulting in an automatic bid to the 16-team ACHA Division III tournament. Their first-round battle against the Grand Valley State Lakers was a tight one from start to finish, as the score was tied 0-0 after one period and 1-1 after two. However, the Lakers took advantage of a late power play by scoring the go-ahead goal with four minutes left, and they held on to win the opening-round game 3-2, ending Tech’s hopes of a national championship.

“GVS was the hottest team in the tourney coming in…This was a very fast and clean game that could have gone our way, but it wasn’t meant to be. I was very proud of our boys for hanging in with this very difficult opening team,” McSparron said.

After the disappointing loss, the team came out somewhat flat on day two against the University of Albany, and that proved costly. While the Jackets were able to recover from an early four-goal deficit, they ultimately could not keep up, and the result was a 9-4 loss.

Despite the rough start, the Tech players were determined to salvage the tournament, and they came ready to play in Friday’s game against Penn State-Brandywine. The Jackets were in command early on as they built a 4-1 lead through two periods, but Penn State fought back in the third to tie the game. The game went to overtime, and Tech recovered to win its first tournament game 5-4 on a Brendan O’Leary goal just 90 seconds in.

The final game pitted them against the College of the Canyons, and Tech jumped out of the gate with three goals in the first four minutes. The Jackets began to relax defensively, and as a result they allowed a last-second goal to end the opening period. The late goal sparked Tech’s offense to life, and the game quickly became a shootout. The teams combined for seven goals in the second period and five in the third, and powered by freshman Ryan Fritz’s hat trick, Tech managed to pull out a 9-7 victory to break even for the tournament.

With the conclusion of the National Championships, one of Tech hockey’s most remarkable seasons ever came to an end. This team set out to honor the memory of Greg Stathis, their longtime coach who passed away last March, by delivering on the ice, and they did just that.

“As the president of this club when he passed, I felt a huge burden to make sure this club went on in a way that he would be proud of. At the beginning of the season, I told everyone this was the most important year in the club’s 35-year history, and we made it one of the best. We accomplished every goal we set out to achieve at the start, which was to win Savannah, sweep UGA, and make it to Nationals, and we won three tournaments along the way,” Baker said.

In winning 24 games against only four losses, the team utilized a fast-paced attack to routinely put on a show for everyone in attendance, scoring six or more goals in seventeen different games. Still, the offensive firepower would not have been enough to carry the team without the superior goaltending of Lucas. The sophomore was stellar throughout the season and led all starting Division III goalies in goals-against average. He held opponents to two or fewer goals 14 times, including three shutouts, and he even played through the flu to help Tech complete the season sweep of Georgia in January.

“Every good hockey team has great goaltending, and we had just that…We had great team defense, but we really couldn’t have had the success we had without [Lucas]. He sets a great example with his work ethic and dedication. He was a first team All-American for the whole ACHA this season, and although it’s not NCAA, its something Georgia Tech should be very proud of,” Baker said.

The team received a huge spark from a talented group of freshmen, who were integral to the team’s success from start to finish. Among the notable first-year stars were winger Albert Park, who scored two goals in each of the team’s first two games, and center Ryan Fritz, who led the team in points for the season. However, equally important—if not more so—was the wealth of experience on the team, led by the seven seniors.

“I’ve never been on a team that has had as much poise as this one. In past years, when we would get scored on, the whole team would get down and they would score more quick goals. This year I can’t even count the number times we would score the next shift after an opponent’s goal. It’s a sign of sticking together as a team, and I think having senior leadership was the source of that,” Baker said.

The seven seniors will be missed, and along with them, Tech will be losing another key member of its coaching staff this offseason—but for much happier reasons. Assistant Coach Kenny “Sarge” Day announced his retirement from the staff after 10 seasons behind the bench, though he does plan to continue his role as the ACHA Division III South’s regional coordinator. In a message posted on the hockey team’s website, Day thanked the players he worked with over the years and recalled some of his favorite memories, including Tech’s victory over Georgia in the 2009 Savannah Hockey Classic.

While reaching the national championships was a major achievement for the players, it was clear that they considered the highlight of this season to be winning the Classic in January. That tournament had always been Stathis’s favorite event of the year, but Tech came up short in each of his final five seasons—a span that included a streak of four consecutive Georgia victories. This year’s team made it their mission to take back the Thrasher Cup, as the victor’s trophy is known; they did so in dominating fashion, defeating Florida State and Georgia by a combined score of 21-3.

“Before the 3rd period of the championship game, I told everyone, ‘If you knew Greg Stathis, you know he is watching right now.’…Winning that weekend with his family there, it was just unbelievable. I’ll never forget that night for the rest of my life. As a graduating senior, I couldn’t have dreamed of a better 2008-2009 season,” Baker said.