For the third straight year the SRJC Hockey team is returning from the Pacific Collegiate Hockey Association Tournament as champions, and for the third straight year the win couldn’t be sweeter.
After taking down San Jose State University’s Division III squad 9-1 in the tournament’s first round Feb. 14, SRJC faced rival UC Davis in the championship game the next day. On paper, UC Davis looked better than the Polar Bears, garnering the league’s No. 1 seed, hosting the top two scorers and taking the teams’ season series 2-1. But players were confident they could handle whatever was thrown at them.
“There was a great vibe around the team all weekend,” said Captain Blake Johnson. “We were confident in our abilities, and knew that if we could play with that confidence and worked hard we would come out on top.”
Tensions were high for most of the first period, with neither team scoring for the first 14 minutes. SRJC’s penalty kill shined in that time, getting through huge penalties to Alternate Captain Josiah Nikkel and rookie points leader Josh Greenwell. That luck carried over offensively as defensemen Colin Ridenour slapped in a power play shot at 5:46 for a 1-0 SRJC lead. A minute later, Stephen Wolmarans tipped the puck in after a tussle in front of the UC Davis net.
“Facing a division rival, the pretty goals aren’t always going to come out,” Wolmarans said. “That goal we had good pressure and puck movement. It came in from the point and we had a lot of traffic in front, lot of people banging around at the rebounds. I just sat up behind the goalie and jammed it home.”
A power play goal by Lucas Digati put UC Davis on the board to end the period with the Polar Bears on top 2-1.
That lead kept SRJC’s intensity going in the second period. Despite UC Davis skating with the man advantage for a majority of the time, the Polar Bears never wavered. The team killed off five penalties and Wolmarans notched his second goal for a 3-1 lead. UC Davis was completely silenced in that period, and the team barely made a peep in the final frame.
“We knew we had to shut down their offense,” said forward Andrew Mason, who focused on playing well in his defensive zone. “My first priority was not to let them get as many big shots off from the points like they have done to us in previous games. I knew if we did our jobs in the defensive zone we would be ok.”
SRJC killed penalty after penalty while UC Davis was slapped with only one in the final frame. Digati scored another power play goal to bring his team within one, but the Polar Bears pushed it into another gear as the minutes ran down.
“Both teams had its ups and its downs just like in every other hockey game,” Nikkel said. “They definitely had more than enough chances to win with all the power plays they were given on a silver platter. But we stayed calm and fought until the end.”
When the final buzzer rang on SRJC’s 3-2 victory, the team bombarded goalie Dominic Jones, who saved 36 of 38 shots on goal. Johnson accepted the PCHA’s Adam’s Cup, then hoisted it in the air as one of his final on-ice acts as the Polar Bears’ Captain.
“It's a great feeling to win a PCHA championship in my last game,” he said. “I can leave this program as a player without any regrets.”
Winning the PCHA title meant something a little different to each player: for many it was the culmination of a season-long goal; for others it was an exciting new win on a freshman campaign. But for those who raised the trophy for SRJC in previous seasons, it was testament to the team’s hard work and dedication to the program.
“It feels amazing to win a third championship in a row,” said goalie Jacob Pavsek, who joins Nikkel and Johnson as the only players to play on all three championship rosters. “Each one of these guys worked so hard for this and deserved to win. I couldn't have asked for a better group of guys to win a championship with.”