Quality Over Quantity: Losing Teammates Restores Confidence, Renews Commitment in Remaining Polar Bears
The Jan. 15 match against Santa Clara University may have been the Polar Bears' 17th game of the season, but in many ways it could have been their first.
The team that took the ice Sunday had a far different look and attitude than any lineup head coach Blake Johnson has thrown out there this season. There were guys who’ve never played together before; others put in positions they had never been in. There was nervousness for some; new confidence for others.
Players were mixed and matched throughout the game, developing chemistry on the fly. There were no set lines, just everyone working together, all at once, as a team.
Before heading into that Santa Clara game no one would have blamed the Polar Bears if they wanted to throw in the towel. SRJC lost 12 of its top players during winter break due to various academic/eligibility reasons and overall lack of commitment. The team loses players every year at semester’s break but 12 is the most in club history.
“On one hand you lose a lot of skill in the guys who didn’t come back. But on the other hand it is going to be a more enjoyable season for all those involved. The team is now made up of guys committed to SRJC, to going to school and to making this team better,” Johnson said. “We now have guys who are ‘team-first.’ We don’t have any selfish players anymore. It is a breath of fresh air. It’s going to be a lot fun coaching these guys for the rest of the season.”
Johnson’s sentiment is echoed throughout the entire organization. And players are excited for the chance to take on roles formerly reserved for team veterans and points leaders.
Suiting up for the second half are forwards David Lundgren, Travis LaBrucherie, John Zerbe, Patrick Parnell, Carson Riley and Larry Hansen; defensemen Alec Runge, Anthony Giampaoli, Armand OConner, Matt Sulllivan and Shawn Pabros; and goaltender Matthew Colgrove. Sophomore points leader Max Brownlee received a six-game suspension after the Dec. 10 Boise State University game, but is expected back in February.
"The players we have right now— those still committed to the second half and the new players— are the core of our team. Yes we lost depth, but now comes the chance to get more ice time and to possibly become top offensive and defensive players," Runge said. "This is a once in the life opportunity that many of us should look forward to. Everyone needs to step up to the plate and hit a homerun. Or, rather, score a goal."
Despite being without most of their big name players, the guys who played against Santa Clara consider the team, for lack of a better phrase, better off. There was no added pressure to be perfect, no one yelling from bench after a mistake on the ice, no egos to skate around.
Players looked more comfortable on the ice, putting up four more goals against Santa Clara in regulation than they did in their previous October match-up. Despite being down early in the first period of the game, not once did SRJC look defeated or go into panic mode—something the team is usually guilty of when trailing.
“When we’d be down by a lot we’d have certain guys who would try to win the game themselves. It would get really frantic with one guy trying to go down and score a quick goal,” Runge said. “Being in that position now, with our new mentality, we are forced to play together; which is good. We are just trying to play together now; it’s not just a one-person show.
There is no doubt the Polar Bears will miss the production players like Josiah Nikkel, John Keshishian and Matt Katicich brought. Only one player out of SRJC’s top 5 scorers are still with the team. But several Polar Bears said that even though they lost the first game with their new squad by three goals, they all felt really good about their play.
Lundgren said that the team was pretty positive after the loss, that everyone’s attitude was really encouraging. Of course losing nearly half their roster is challenging, but Lundgren believes that if SRJC continues to stay positive and play as a team that they will be just fine going forwards.
“We like the group that we have. Everyone who stayed are the ones who are committed and want to be here. We want to play for each other, not as individuals for our own stats,” Lundgren said. “When we play a team game that is how we’ll win.”