Almost a month into the 2015-16 season, the SRJC Hockey team saw both the good and bad that comes with a new crop of Polar Bears. While at times it seems lack of natural defense and miscommunication could sink the ship at any time, a few freshman standouts and trusty veteran leadership have the Polar Bears confidently heading into their second month.
Kicking off the year against UC Berkeley, the team took its sixth consecutive opening night victory over Cal. Rookie forward Max Brownlee found the back of the net around the five-minute mark, his first of two in the 7-4 win.
Captain Josiah Nikkel scored his first of the year, along with two assists on the night; and sophomore Matt Katicich notched one three minutes into the third period. Freshman forward Alex Provost got in on the action in the first period, scoring on his second shift of the game thanks to a pass by Brownlee.
That Cal win saw a fair amount of production, but it wasn't without hiccups. SRJC took 11 penalties, including disqualifications for Provost and Tim Buchter, while freshman forward Kurtis Klinger dislocated his shoulder in the first period but finished out the match.
"It always helps to get that first game behind you. The rookies put in some of the best performances of that night," said alternate captain and team president Stephen Wolmarans. "But we had some issues: not supporting each other, not talking to one another, making plays more difficult than they need to be. But talking to one another and getting used to the fast play and pressure should help going forward."
There wasn’t much turn around as the Polar Bears faced longtime foe San Jose State University the next day. The Division II team has always been a thorn in SRJC's side, and this time proved no different.
Polar Bear net minder Chris Tomaszewski silenced San Jose in the first 20 minutes, his play complemented by SRJC's incredible defensive blocking. The team played well in the neutral zone in the first period, but the issues from the Cal game affected the next 20 minutes.
Miscommunication between forwards slowed SRJC and defensive play around the Polar Bears' net was sloppy. Tomaszewski stood no chance as San Jose took a 4-1 lead into the final period.
Things looked bright as Nikkel completed the hat trick in the third to tie the score, giving SRJC a chance at life with five minutes left. Only a weak boarding call to Brownlee doomed SRJC, as San Jose scored on the power play for the 5-4 win.
Despite the loss, the Polar Bears played an incredible third period, with more energy than they have ever displayed in the final frame of regular-season game.
"Our third period was ridiculous," Klinger said. "But we need to go out there next time and play a full 60 minutes, not give them the first forty like we did. We can't pull off the gas at any time."
The team took that mentality into a three-game road trip to Boise Oct. 2-4, plyaing Gonzaga University, Boise State University and SJSU.
The first game was a little too easy for the Polar Bears, as they completely dominated Gonzaga Oct. 2, 7-2. Katicich scored two goals, with Nikkel, Klinger, Wolmarans, David Lundgren and freshman Lane Beliveau each adding one. The team scored two power play goals (Lundgren, Nikkel) and a shorthanded goal (Katicich), but took 12 penalties in the game.
Aiming to keep those penalty minutes down, SRJC rematched against SJSU the next day. Play was nearly the same for the first 40 minutes as the Sept. 26 game, with San Jose taking a 3-0 lead into the third period.
But like that first game, SRJC came out blazing in the final frame, tying the score thanks to goals by Katicich, Klinger and Lundgren. A scoreless sudden death overtime followed, right before a game-deciding shootout.
The Polar Bears sent Lundgren out for the first round, beating the San Jose goalie right before an amazing save on Tomaszewski’s end. Nikkel fired in the game-winning shot as his goalie shut the door on San Jose for a 4-3 (SO) win. For the first time in Santa Rosa Junior College Polar Bear history, the team defeated the Division II squad of San Jose State University.
“The San Jose State game was big for us,” Nikkel said. “We competed hard, came back and played great.”
SRJC didn’t have any time to relish in the win as it faced Boise State in the final road trip game the next morning. The team couldn’t get over nagging injuries and an early call time, falling 7-1.
Nikkel said players felt good coming off the road trip, despite that loss. The team better understood what works, what needs improvement and how to push on.
The team took a week off before a new series against Stanford University (Oct. 16) and Portland State University (Oct. 17).
SRJC’s former Pacific Collegiate Hockey Association rival scored first off Jacob Pavsek Oct. 16, but that was all he’d allow in the period as his teammates took the lead. Nikkel, Katicich and defensemen Colin Ridenour made it 5-1 to end the first, which the team followed up with four more for a 9-5 win. Freshman goalie Lachlan Irvine got his first ice time of the season, and Katicich scored his first hat trick to up his season point streak to seven games.
Portland State the next night at Snoopy’s Home Ice was as high energy as it comes. Katicich nearly completed back-to-back hat trick nights, as Tomaszewski shutdown opponents for a 6-1 victory.
“I’ve been feeling pretty good in net; been seeing the shots really well,” he said. “The boys have been putting points up on the board, which makes me feel comfortable in net. I know that if I make a mistake, they have my back. Overall, I’m just feeling really good and excited to push forward.”
While a relatively new team with new leadership at the helm might slow down most teams, the Polar Bears are using it to their advantage.
“We have definitely gotten better since game one. We have a lot of new guys getting used to new systems, and we have a new coaching staff which returning players have to get used to as well,” Nikkel said. “Overall, we are playing pretty good. There’s always room for improvement, but everyone is gelling well together.”