By Jenn Whittaker
After the Spartan Hockey Club defeated UCF 4-3 in the last regular season game, the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) released its Division III National Rankings. The Spartans ranked second in the south region giving them an automatic bid to the national championship competition in Grand Rapids, MI, which will take place March 8-12 at Southside Ice Arena.
This will be the first time that the Spartans will compete at the national level.
“There is a lot of excitement about going to Nationals for our first time,” head coach Stephen Kucera said. “The competition will be fierce.”
The game plan for the upcoming competition is to stick to the routine that’s been successful for them all season long: play tenacious hockey.
“We play a northern style of hockey, which should be an advantage come nationals. We are a hard-hitting and aggressive team, but our speed is what sets us ahead of everyone else,” Senior forward and 2013 all-star Corey Tudor said. “As long as we combine all those elements into solid team play I don’t think there is a team in the country that wants to play against us.”
Despite his optimism heading into the tournament, Tudor wants the team to remain focused and not rely on past successes.
“ Scores, records and stats are all null and void now,” he said. “The playoffs are a totally different animal and anything can happen. We are all pretty confident that if everyone does their job, like they have all season, we can go all the way.”
While many playoff-bound teams opt for new strategies or aim to implement alternate schemes to give themselves an edge, the Spartans are sticking with what they have. Like the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
“We intend to roll with what has worked for us going into Nationals, except for some minor adjustments. Now is not the time to try and tinker with who we are as a team,” Kucera said.
However, the Spartans have more to consider than preparing physically for the tournament; the logistics and expenses of getting the team to Michigan in the first place pose a challenge of their own. At the moment team is depending on gifts and donations. Dean of Students Stephanie Russell Krebs has aided in the team’s planning for nationals, and several anonymous donors have chipped in to support the team. Still, the biggest “donation” has come from Coach Kucera, who put $17,000 on his credit card to cover airfare and hotel.
Of course, student help has been a major boon for the team’s success, both morale-wise and monetarily.
“I’d like to give a big thank you to Sarah Daniels, the President of Student Government at UT, for all the time, energy and funding she puts into helping our program,” assistant coach Ricky Duddy said. Students have supported the team all season long by taking advantage of student buses to get them to UT home games at the Brandon Iceplex.
The team has also put up a website to help off-set the fees that the scholar-athletes and coaches have to pay to compete at the national level.The GoFundMe page has raised over $2,300 so far. The trip is going to cost roughly $20,000 before meals. Donations of any size can be made at www.gofundme.com/UThockey2016.
However, the journey to nationals started a long time before this single season. The team’s progression has taken several recruiting sessions over six seasons.
“I’ve been on this team since our inception and can say first hand that it has not been an easy road. Going from worst to first has been something that I have dreamed of for years,” Tudor said. “We have officially been given the chance to realize that dream. Each year we have added players that have really helped our team win. This year we finally put it all together. It just took a lot of patience and a couple good recruiting classes. We’re just a bunch of kids from a small school in Florida ready to shock the world at Nationals.”
There is excitement at the national level for UT to make its first appearance, too. “I don’t coach so I don’t officially have a horse in this race,” said Scott Solomon, National Vice-President of Men’s Division III hockey operations at the ACHA. “However, I have family ties to the Tampa area and am very excited to see what the guys have got since it’s their first time coming to the tournament. They’re in a tough bracket and I will be cheering them on.”
There are four pools, each with four teams, in the national championship opener. On Tuesday, March 8, UT will start off the tournament against Aquinas College at 10:00 a.m (CT). The following day, Wednesday, March 9, they face Fairfield University at 10:15 a.m (CT). On Thursday, March 10, they’ll play Colorado State University at 4:00 p.m (CT). The winners of each pool will advance to the semi-finals on Friday March 11 (time TBD) with the final championship game being held on Saturday, March 12 (time TBD). All times listed include warm-ups, so the actual game will start 30 minutes after the listed time. You can watch the Spartans make their playoff debut via live streaming at either the westmisports.com or the achahockey.org websites. The Spartans also plan on adding the link to their Facebook page as soon as it becomes available.