Twelve members of the SRJC Hockey team are in Sioux Center, IA for the Clash in the Corn Tournament this weekend, and despite its shorten bench the team is determine to put on a show.
Playing against three American Collegiate Hockey Association Division III teams, the Polar Bears must overcome its recent woes and work together to pull off a successful weekend. Wins in these games would improve SRJC’s chance at a higher ranking, which could secure a playoff spot, if not an automatic bid to Nationals.
“We suffered three injuries during our last game against UC Davis; with injuries and lack of funds, our squad going to Iowa is going to be small, so teamwork is absolutely mandatory,” said Eric Zagacki.
SRJC will face Aurora University-Blue in the first day of competition at 1:30 p.m. CT/11:30 a.m. PT Thursday, Nov. 20. This is the first time the Polar Bears will face Aurora, who is currently unranked.
An exceptional squad, who has spent time atop the ACHA leader boards in the past, Aurora is off to a slow start with a 2-4 record. The team is coming off a 1-1 split with Northwestern University last weekend, going 2-5 (loss) and 7-5 (win) in the series. In its six games, Aurora has scored 26 goals while giving up 43. Three players lead the team in points, including Bryce Stenstrom who has scored four power play goals in five games. With SRJC having trouble keeping out of the penalty box, controlling their tempers and silencing Stenstrom is key.
“I think we have to go in there and play smart; no one can do it one their own,” said Andrew Mason. “We have a short bench, so we have to work with each other.”
On Friday, Nov. 21, the Polar Bears will play tournament host Dordt College at 7:30 p.m. CT/5:30 p.m. PT. Dordt is currently unranked with a 2-11-1-0 record. The team has been shutout four times this season, having scored 28 goals to opponents’ 91.
Like the Polar Bears, Dordt College takes many penalties. If SRJC can control those minutes, it can gain an edge over Dordt.
The last day of the Clash in the Corn will pit SRJC against the no. 1 ranked University of Arkansas at 4:30 p.m. CT/ 2:30 p.m. PT Saturday, Nov. 22. With a 13-6-1 record, Arkansas will be the Polar Bears toughest competition all weekend. An SRJC win would prove huge in rankings, but it will not come easy.
Arkansas has mostly played against DI teams this season, with only four games played against DIII opponents. Scouts say Arkansas is not the same caliber team as in recent years, but it has outscored opponents 113-61. The team has nine players in double-digit points, with four players with 10 plus goals.
The Polar Bears have slightly better numbers, including their goals for/against record (116-37), penalty kill percentage (92.3-83.3), power play goals (21-8) and shorthanded goals (9-1).
What really separates the two is the level of competition each has face this season and depth. SRJC primarily faces unranked teams, whereas Arkansas sees competition from all ACHA levels. Additionally, SRJC has a short bench for this tournament.
“Hopefully we get some goals early. And play some solid defense, and not from behind like we have been as of late,” said Matt Katicich. “We’ll have to get Dom [Jones, goalie] to stand on his head like he has been, because we’re going to need him.”
Overall, players are optimistic and excited about this tournament’s level of play.
“I’m stoked to go out there and see some new competition and try to put SRJC on the map in the ACHA, We’ve all been working hard, especially the guys who are going on the trip,” Mason said. “We are ready for that elevated competition, ready to show what we got and I think it’s going to be a fun weekend no matter what happens.”
Hard to believe the team that didn’t suffer a loss in over a month was handed two crushing defeats and a tie in only a matter of days. After slaying opponents in October, November has not turned out as the Polar Bears’ hoped.
SRJC started the month hosting its fourth annual Wine Country Collegiate Classic Nov. 6-8. Bringing three American Collegiate Hockey Association teams to Snoopy’s Home Ice, the Polar Bears expected nothing less than a showcase sweep.
Competition began with a heated game against former Pacific Collegiate Hockey Association rival Santa Clara University.
Santa Clara struck first with a goal three minutes in, holding that 1-0 lead to end the first. Things started to look up for the Polar Bears as Josiah Nikkel scored 54 seconds into the second period. The team followed up with two more goals off the sticks of defensemen Eric Zagacki and freshman standout Josh Greenwell. But SRJC couldn’t finish, as Santa Clara sent the game to a scoreless overtime and an eventual shootout loss for the Polar Bears.
Hoping to bounce back the next day, SRJC faced College of the Canyons.
CoC lead the score most of the game, and it was evident the Polar Bears didn’t like trailing. SRJC struggled to gain composure after several questionable penalties, including five-minute majors for Zagacki (head butting) and John Keshishian (body check). At the end of two, the Polar Bears were down 4-2.
SRJC had a better sense of urgency and determination in the third period. Despite a more cohesive strategy and a goal from Nikkel, SRJC lost 5-3.
“We came in a little too cocky, thinking the game was going to be a breeze based on the two games we had [against CoC] earlier this season,” said Andrew Mason. “We kind of snapped out of it in the third period, but it didn’t end up being enough.”
With the first round of official ACHA rankings released Nov. 8, the #6 Polar Bears took on #8 University of New Mexico for the final game of the 2014 WCCC.
The team took an early 1-0 lead after Greenwell and Zagacki fed the puck to Nikkel for a goal. SRJC took five penalties over in the next six minutes of play, but the Polar Bears killed the constant 5-on-3 UNM advantage with their one-goal lead still intact.
Back-to-back power play goals by Blake Johnson increased SRJC’s lead 3-0 in the second period. The Polar Bears stayed out of the penalty box the entire period- marking the first penalty-free period all season. Chris Whitten added a goal in the third for a 4-1 lead and eventual win.
SRJC was definitely a different team against UNM, despite players insisting the approach was no different.
“Maybe we played with a little more desperation in our game,” Johnson said.
“Every team will go through a rough patch during the season, but the good teams minimize these slumps and get out of them quickly,” he continued. “Against UNM, we went out and played a complete 60-minute game and the scoreboard showed it. It's always a blast to come out on top of a competitive game against a good team, and to be able to do it at home makes it even sweeter.”
SRJC went 1-1-1 in its showcase; a letdown after sweeping the competition in 2013. But the team couldn’t dwell on it long as a new weekend of PCHA competition awaited.
Playing in an unfriendly Vacaville Nov. 14, the Polar Bears knew a win against UC Davis woudn’t be easy.
UC Davis took a 2-0 lead into the second period before Nikkel put SRJC on the board. The score was 4-2 to open the third period, and Greenwell brought the Polar Bears within one goal with 12 minutes left to play. Still, UC Davis handed SRJC a 5-3 loss and its first PCHA defeat of the season.
SRJC lost three players to injuries in the game. Both Zagacki and Brandon Bronze were sidelined early, and Jackson Waldron was forced off the ice in the third period after taking a hard hit in the defensive zone.
“It was tough losing Bronzy [Brandon Bronze] in the first shift, and losing [Eric] Zagacki. We were only playing with three D which hurt us,” Mason said. “But we could have won that game. We out shot them and out chanced them; we just didn’t finish.”
“What it comes down to is: we couldn’t put the puck in the net. I personally had four or five [shots] that completely missed,” said Matt Katicich. “Everyone had a good amount of chances; we just got to put it on net.”
That was not the only problem. SRJC gave up two early power play goals and struggled with shuffling their top three lines because of injuries. And like the WCCC games, SRJC did not work as a team and it proved costly.
“Our team’s intensity and commitment has been oscillating lately,” Zagacki said. “Beating the University of New Mexico after losing the two first games in our showcase brought us back into the mentality we needed. Unfortunately, the teamwork and drive needed to beat UC Davis was lacking so we fell short.”
“After getting injured and seeing the team-play from the outside, we need to start working a lot better together if we want to compete in the more challenging games coming up this season,” he went on. “We've been playing as individuals and if we want to succeed as a team, we need to play as a team. We need to trust our line-mates and move the puck around more.”
The Polar Bears returned home the next day against San Jose State University, looking to get back in the win column.
Mason and Nikkel notched two unassisted goals in the first period for a quick SRJC lead. Things looked a bit dicey as SJSU made it 2-1 before Polar Bear rookie Ryan Ellis scored his second goal of the year off a pass from defensemen Colin Ridenour. The goal marked Ellis’ first point since Oct. 3, and created a much needed distance between the two teams. From there, Keshishian and Greenwell each added two goals while Nikkel completed the hat trick to end the game 9-1.
“Saturday's game was big for me, not because of the competition, but because I knew I would be depended upon more than usual,” Ellis said, of his second period goal and increased ice time in the game. “It felt amazing scoring another goal, especially because my parents were in the crowd.”
The win over SJSU was huge, both from a statistical and mental standpoint. The past two weeks proved SRJC might not be as invincible as it thinks- especially against PCHA teams.
“These past two week have been kind of like a reality check for us. Our team understands that we can’t go in expecting to win just because we are better. We have to go out there and prove it every night,” Mason said. “That is something that is settling in with us, and going forward games will be easier knowing that.”
The SRJC Hockey team went undefeated in its second month of competition, beating six different teams to boost its overall record to 10-1. That win streak leads the Polar Bears into a month of new challenges and competitors- starting with SRJC’s fourth annual Wine Country Collegiate Classic.
Beginning today, SRJC will host its annual tournament at Snoopy’s Home Ice, facing three highly competitive ACHA teams.
The action kicks off at 6:30 p.m. Nov.6, with the Polar Bears taking on former PCHA rival Santa Clara University. Three weeks ago, SRJC travelled to Redwood City to take on their division foe and edged out a last second 4-3 win. That game was an all-out 60-minute battle, and this rematch is sure to be another nail bitter.
College of the Canyons and the University of New Mexico will close out the first day of competition. CoC is looking for its first win on the season and must stop a surging UNM, who is coming off back-to-back victories over the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
On Friday, Nov. 7, SRJC will compete against CoC for the third time this season. In late September, the Polar Bears won two games against CoC on the team’s Southern California road trip. Tempers flared in the second game, costing CoC a few players and giving SRJC the victory. This time around, it might not be as easy for the Polar Bears, who are having trouble staying out of the penalty box.
Santa Clara and UNM will play immediately following SRJC’s 6 p.m. match.
The last day of the showcase will pit SRJC against UNM at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 8. UNM currently sits one spot behind the Polar Bears in the unofficial ACHA rankings. With the first official round of rankings due to come out Nov. 7, there is no doubt this match will be the most exciting of the weekend.
Coc and Santa Clara will end the tournament with a 9 p.m. game.
All fans are encouraged to come out to Snoopy’s and cheer the Polar Bears to victory. As always admission is free.
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