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Men’s hockey wins WIAC playoff title, gets snubbed by NCAA

March 11, 2015

It had been 19 years since the UW-River Falls men’s hockey team appeared in a conference tournament championship game.

The drought of an appearance and a conference tournament championship ended on Saturday, March 7, as the Falcons won its WIAC title match against UW-Stevens Point by a score of 3-1.

The game didn’t start off the way the Falcons had hoped, however. The game was scoreless through the first half of the first period, but just 41 seconds after the halfway mark, Kyle Sharkey scored for Stevens Point to put the home team up 1-0.

Less than four minutes later, it was a brand new contest. Junior forward Zach Schrotenboer scored an unassisted goal at the 14:10 mark to tie the game up at one. The score would stay that way into the third period.

At the 7:07 mark of the third period, sophomore defenseman Michael Lant was sent to the penalty box for two minutes for hooking, putting the Falcons down a man. But that didn’t stop the Falcons from attacking. With 27 seconds left of the penalty, sophomore forward Mike Fazio scored a shorthanded goal for the Falcons to give UWRF a 2-1 lead.

The attack worked for the Falcons when it had an extra man, too. At 15:40, Steven Point’s Lawrence Cornellier was called for slashing, putting the Falcons on the power play. Fifteen seconds later, sophomore forward Mike Dietrich put in a power play goal to extend the lead to two for the Falcons. That’s how the final score would read with the Falcons winning 3-1.

“There was a whistle, 13 seconds left on the clock, and that’s when it kind of set in that we were going to be WIAC champions, so just that experience of going out onto the ice and everyone throwing their helmets and gloves off, and celebrating with each other and kind of seeing your hard work payoff is an awesome moment,” said sophomore forward Christian George.

Despite the win and the WIAC playoff championship, the Falcons’ season came to an end thanks to the NCAA committee. The WIAC does not have enough hockey teams in the conference to have an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. In other conferences, that automatic bid goes to the winner of the conference’s tournament champion.

UWRF was hoping to get one of four at-large bids available after the conclusion of the conference tournaments. These bids are open to any Div. III school in the country, but an NCAA selection committee decides who the four are.

Despite being ranked fifth in the country in the latest uscho.com poll, the Falcons were not selected.

To make matters worse, Stevens Point, the team the Falcons had just defeated to win the WIAC playoff championship, was selected. Stevens Point finished sixth in the final uscho.com poll. Stevens Point did finish a single game better than the Falcons record-wise.

The Falcons used to not have to worry about an automatic bid. Just two years ago, the Falcons were in the NCHA, which had seven teams, the bare minimum for an automatic bid to the NCAA. That league split and now the Falcons are in the WIAC, two teams short.

“It would be great in the Wisconsin system if a La Crosse or Oshkosh or even Whitewater, someone like that, jumped in and added a team,” said Head Coach Steve Freeman.

Despite the tournament snub, there is a lot to be cheerful about for the Falcons. The Falcons won only its third conference championship ever, 1988 and 1996 were the victories before. The team started the season on a 13-game winning streak, a school record. Plus, three Falcons were named to the all-WIAC first team: forwards Kyle Gattelaro and George, and junior goaltender Tanner Milliron.

Milliron played every single minute in goal for the Falcons this season. Freeman said it was important for Milliron to be in goal every single game due to the need to win every game without the automatic qualifier.

“Tanner played so well and we have so much confidence in him that we rode him all the way through and he’s done a tremendous job for us,” Freeman said. “It seems like every night he gives us a chance to win. He’s been pretty consistent. He’s a workhorse.”

Losses show up on the schedule later in the season, and the Falcons’ season did get dramatically tougher in the second half. The Falcons finished 20-7-1 overall, but UWRF only lost to three teams all year: Stevens Point, UW-Eau Claire and the University of St. Thomas.

Freeman glowed when talking about his team this season, commenting on the enthusiasm and dedication from his players.

“I’ve been here a long time; we’ve had great teams and good players, but this is one of the most fun-filled years I’ve had working with the team as far as good guys to be around, a lot of fun, and they work hard in practice,” Freeman said. “That’s really what led to their success, their work ethic in practice.”

The good times should keep rolling for the Falcons next year. The Falcons only lose one senior who was receiving significant playing time. The 19-year conference championship game drought looks like it won’t be repeated in the near future.

When 10-goal scorer George was asked about his expectations for next season he had only two words.

“National championship.”