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Men’s hockey team reflects on season

March 23, 2007

The Falcons men’s hockey team had their season end as most teams do – with a loss. Hosting the Bethel Royals in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Falcons lost 2-1 in front of a packed house in Hunt Arena.

The Falcons failed to reach the championship game in the NCHA and didn’t win a game in the NCAA tournament. Both losses to end each of the team’s playoff runs occurred at home.

“Obviously we were a little bit disappointed to get beat in the tournament right away, but stepping back right now, there were all kinds of positives,” head coach Steve Freeman said. “Any time at this level when you win 20 or more games, it’s really a successful season.”

One of the positive aspects for the Falcons is that the team was able to hang a banner with a late season run to earn a co-championship in the NCHA. For the Falcons to earn the co-championship, they needed a sweep of the then-division leading Stout Blue Devils in a home and home series on the final weekend of the regular season. The Falcons took care of business at home, winning 4-1. The real came when the team went on the road in an attempt to beat the top team in the league on consecutive nights, this time in Stout’s building.

The Falcons jumped out to a 2-0 lead before Stout battled back to tie it in the third period. The Falcons struck next, but the Blue Devils tied it 22 seconds later. Then, in overtime, Dustin Norman lined up a slap shot and ripped it past Mike Stone. Norman dove around the blue line, sliding past the Stout bench and in front of his own before being mobbed by his teammates.

“Our back was really against the wall that weekend,” said Freeman. “We needed to win both games. We were able to play well and get them both, one at home and one on the road. Those were big, monster games for us.”

That series capped off the late-season run for the Falcons, and had them riding an incredible amount of momentum, earning the number one seed the week before the start of the NCHA playoffs.

“I think we peaked in that Stout series, when we beat Stout,” junior forward TJ Dahl said. “There was so much on the line and I think we played two unbelievable games. I really think that’s when our hockey team was at its best all year.

The Falcons handled the Lake Forest Foresters in the first round, outscoring them 11-2. The team’s NCHA playoff run ended when it met St. Scholastica in the semi-finals, losing 2-1 in Hunt Arena.

The Falcons earned their first NCAA tournament berth since the 2003-04 season. Falcons players also earned multiple accolades throughout the season. Dahl was named NCHA Player of the Year and was also named to the All-NCHA and All-WIAC first team with lineman Derek Hanserry, defensemen Jim Henkemeyer, and goaltender A.J. Bucchino.

“We got banner performances from the top guys,” Freeman said. “Obviously, the usual guys with Bucchino, and Dahl, and Hansberry and Henkemeyer. I think that they’ll continue to improve as hockey players, too.”

After being stuck with 199 wins for four games, Coach Freeman won his 200th game this season on Oct. 28, when River Falls beat Lawrence 6-4 at Hunt Arena. Freeman was also named WIAC Coach of the Year for the fifth straight year.

A few negatives still hang over the hockey program. The Falcons haven’t won the NCHA playoffs since 1996. The team also hasn’t won an NCAA game since the 2003-04 season, and its last national championship came when most of the current Falcons were in grade school.

The Falcons have not won on the road against St. Norbert since the 1997-98 season and have never won a game at the Cornerstone Community Center in DePere, Wis. This season, the team was up 2-1 over St. Norbert before giving up two late goals, losing 3-2.

But beyond those few negatives, Dahl said he considers this last season to be a positive one.

“We achieved almost every goal we set at the beginning of the year except for winning the national championship,” Dahl said. “We had a great regular season, we got to hang a banner, and we made the national tournament.”

The Falcons had two seniors this season in Tyler Kostiuk and Jared Sailer. Both of them were key players both on and off the ice for the Falcons. UWRF is only losing two seniors, so the core of this year’s team will remain in tact.

“A lot of teams in our league are graduating six, seven guys, and that’s a loss compared to two,” Bucchino said.  “I think we’re right there. It should be fun. I think we have a chance just like anyone else.”

With the added experience, and through the progression of the younger players, Dahl said he believes next year is lining up to be an even more successful one.
“We should come into next season thinking nothing but national championship, and I think it’s a realistic goal,” Dahl said. “Especially now that we’ve got the experience in the national tournament and we’ve got our younger guys with experience. I think that all-in-all we’re going to be the team to beat next year, and I think we’re going to back it up as well.”

Freeman said the Falcons will head into next season with high expectations but he knows the team has to accomplish one goal at a time.

“Just like this year, we set our goal as getting into the NCAA national tournament,” Freeman said. “You have to get yourself in the tournament first. But I think we’re a legitimate threat, and we’ll be in the hunt.”