With a rookie coach, new captain and a relatively freshman team, there were a lot of questions heading into SRJC’s 2015-16 season. Could a player-turned-coach garner enough respect to put together a winning season? Can a first-year captain fill the shoes left by one of the greatest leaders SRJC ever had? Would the Polar Bears newest campaign falter from lack of veteran talent?
These questions lingered through the highs and lows of this season. But the Polar Bears’ commitment to each other and the name on their jerseys silenced the doubt, producing a cohesive squad and another well-deserved championship.
Before the official puck drop last September, SRJC knew there’d be some growing pains. Only 15 out of 30 players returned from the previous year — just five of whom had more than one season under their belt.
Luckily, returning players knew they had to set the tone from the get-go.
“As a veteran I felt it was really important to show the younger guys what it means to play for this team and the honor it is every time you put on the JC sweater,” said Jackson Waldron. “That was a huge priority for me because I had so many SRJC legends show me the way. I wanted to do anything to help the team win. I’d go out and play forward or defense and just do whatever was asked of me.”
That mentality strengthen SRJC’s ranks and allowed rookies to contribute big. Freshman Max Brownlee kicked off the season with SRJC’s first goal in its sixth-consecutive opening night win over UC Berkeley Sept. 25. Forwards Lane Beliveau and Alex Provost also scored, with Kurtis Klinger notching a point. These Polar Bear rookies proved to be the difference maker in that 7-4 win; and again several more times this season.
Brownlee, Klinger, Beliveau, Larry Hansen and Evan Hastings frequently traded the rookie points leader spot. They comprised arguably the best SRJC freshman class since its first years. Brownlee alone produced some of SRJC’s best plays, while carrying the team’s longest-ever point streak.
But as offensively productive as the freshman were, their limited experience against collegiate competition — not to mention skate time with other players — had its drawbacks.
Taking on San Jose State University Sept. 26, SRJC fell behind quickly. While captain Josiah Nikkel netted a hat trick to tie the score late in the third, the Polar Bear newbies were held to just three assists and took a huge penalty that lead to SJSU’s go-ahead goal.
SRJC got revenge at the Boise State University Showcase Oct. 3. After playing down for most of the game, SRJC tied it up in the third then took a 4-3 shootout win. The victory marked the first time SRJC won against the Division II team.
That history-making game should’ve provided enough momentum for the team to sweep the weekend, but the final game resulted in a 7-1 defeat to Boise State. SRJC took 11 penalties that game, including freshman defensemen Tim Buchter’s second game disqualification in one week.
If SRJC’s biggest problem to start was its rookie presence, then its lack of discipline was its second. Within the first week, players committed 48 penalties with three game DQ’s. For most of the first half, penalties were the culprit behind several disappointing plays.
Defensemen Colin Ridenour believed the abundance of penalties was because of laziness at certain points. If the Polar Bears gave 100 percent and didn’t get complacent or desperate when things didn’t go their way then they’d come out with the win, he said.
Penalties were a challenge that SRJC was aware of, but it wasn’t until the first weekend of Division III competition that the rest of its problems came to pass.
Slow starts hindered the Polar Bears repeatedly, but no more so than in their 5-4 loss to UC Davis Oct. 23. SRJC needed come out strong the next day against Santa Clara University but with only rookie scoring, Santa Clara’s three straight goals — one in each period — sealed a 3-2 loss.
Poor puck control, miscommunication, bad execution and poor defensive positioning contributed to those back-to-back losses. But it opened the Polar Bears eyes to what needed fixing.
“We realized that we needed to work on our breakouts and add a little more depth and speed to our defense,” said David Lundgren. “So we shifted some players around and mixed in some new D pairs.”
With only two natural defensemen rostered, the team’s defensive prowess was an occasional “what-if.”
That was evident in the 6-1 San Diego State University loss Nov. 6 as several players looked lost all game. Defensemen often skated out of position, without return coverage, leading to massive turnovers and six goals. The shutout looked inevitable until Brownlee’s power play goal with eight minutes left.
It was a complete 360 the next day as SRJC came out strong, silencing SDSU while racking up five goals. Brownlee once again came through, netting his first game-winning goal for the 5-3 triumph.
“The San Diego road trip is when we really started becoming a team,” Hansen said. “We went through a little adversity in the first game against them. But with a little help from the coaches we were able to see what we can really do when we work together.”
That realization lit a fire underneath SRJC as it blazed past SJSU and UC Davis Nov. 20-21 for two incredible wins. That weekend series was SRJC’s best until that point, if not best all season.
“That was the point where we really all came together and played as one solid team. Everyone developed a kind of chemistry with one another and we knew each other’s tendencies,” said rookie defensemen AJ Spears. “We changed up our lines and got to see who played well with who, and were able to put them all together to create a successful, winning team.”
Stephen Wolmarans and several others admitted that losing Beliveau and Matt Katicich to injury in the New Year slowed SRJC more than usual as it got used to new line combinations. Without those two, players shuffled around to not only cover the second line, but to provide strong centers on all four.
There was no time to re-familiarize themselves before their last road trip. SRJC came out flat against College of the Canyons Jan. 14, but still came out with a 7-3 win.
SRJC’s loss the next day against Cal State Fullerton goes down as one of its best defeats, while the final game is hands-down one of the most bizarre. After getting up 6-0 to end the second period, SRJC was declared the winner after Fullerton refused to play the rest of the game.
“It was an emotional game that got a little chippy at times. They were getting frustrated and trying to take advantage of our guys and get them in vulnerable situations,” said first-year head coach Blake Johnson, who lead this team to a respectable 17-8-1 record. “We were really proud of the guys for having a lot of discipline, forcing penalties and really just putting it to them.”
There were four games left after that, but only the final UC Davis game Jan. 30 really mattered as it would determine the PCHA champion.
“We knew it would be something special if we won it for the fourth-straight year so we had to come in with the mindset to win it all,” Hastings said. “We worked hard all season and didn’t want to come out empty handed. We were all mentally and physically ready to play and win.”
The hard work paid off as Wolmarans scored a hat trick in a 7-3 championship win in front of SRJC’s home crowd for the first time in four years.
“It felt great to win it. We all played really well and went for it,” said Shane Butulia, who got to play in his first PCHA game in his second year. “The crowd brought the energy and it was just one hell of a game to play in.”
While the 2015-16 season may have ended without an ACHA playoff invitation, the SRJC Hockey team can stand proudly at what it did accomplish.
This season would be nothing without the emergence of leadership, as captain Nikkel and alternates Lundgren and Wolmarans paved the way for players to find a home and grow as individuals and competitors.
Defense may have been a questionable at times but it ended as one of SRJC’s strongest assets.
“We definitely lost some critical defensive players to start the year, but what we lost we gained in unique talent and player’s devotion to making sure we didn't fall behind,” Ridenour said. “I made it a goal this year to have a defense that worked together as a team and competitive unit. And we accomplished that.”
The Polar Bears not only captured a fourth-straight PCHA title, but they put themselves in a great position for next season.
“It’s amazing how our group of guys came together and accomplished what we did — winning-wise and rising to the occasion against several difficult opponents. The only times we didn't beat worthy adversaries was because we momentarily forgot that,” said Tommy Dennen. “With our captains heading into their senior-ship I'm more than confident in the leadership at the top of our ranks. I have no doubt the remaining squad will pull together next season, put us on top and remind us of our ability to rise to occasion and that we are a special collection which can play at any level if we choose.”