When Chris Brooks took over as men’s hockey coach at Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 2011-12, he set out to create a culture within the program.
“There’s an expectation to act a certain way on the ice, to act a certain way off the ice, to act a certain way in the community,” Brooks said. “When I recruit kids, I tell them exactly that, and if that doesn’t fit with them, then they’re better off and I’m better off with them going somewhere else.
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He found players willing to buy in.
Last year, Brooks led the Pointers to their first Division III tournament in 16 years, and the team got as far as the championship game before falling to powerhouse St. Norbert.
This year, they’re hoping to do even better.
They’ll have their opportunity this weekend.
UW-Stevens Point will face eighth-ranked Amherst Friday in the semifinals at Ridder Arena in Minneapolis, following the other semifinal game between No. 2 Adrian and No. 7 Trinity (Conn.). The winners will meet for the championship on Saturday.
“Every single day when I wake up, do I think about that game?” Brooks said of the 2014 championship game. “Damn right I do, and that’s part of what drives me to be successful the next day.
“We’ve used that all season as motivation.”
UW-Stevens Point brings a solid but not necessarily flashy team to Minneapolis. With standout senior goalie Brandon Jaeger controlling the back line, the Pointers are able to take the puck into the offensive zone and hold onto it, forcing the opponent to work to get it back.
It’s a game plan that has worked so far this season, as the Pointers went 21-6-1 and clinched the WIAC regular-season title.
“I’m not sure that we’ve played to our full potential all season,” Brooks said. “Hopefully that’s this weekend.”
The Pointers will first have to get past Amherst, which finished second behind Trinity in the NESCAC regular season but won the conference tournament. The Jeffs (21-4-2) are a strong defensive team, led by senior goalie Danny Vitale, whose 1.71 goals-against average, .943 save percentage and five shutouts all rank within the top six in the nation. The team’s 2.0 goals allowed per game ranks sixth in the nation.
On the other side of the bracket, Adrian comes to Minneapolis on a roll, having won 12 consecutive games since Jan. 23 while scoring at least three goals in all of those games. Behind first-year coach Adam Krug — who played for Adrian from 2007-09 — the Bulldogs dispatched of St. Norbert in the NCHA Harris Cup Championship before eliminating Oswego State in the quarterfinals.
“We’ve had a lot of timely scoring, our big players have stepped up when we’ve needed them to and we’ve had great goaltending,” Krug said. “There’s definitely been some ups and downs during this streak, but all in all the guys have bought in and are playing for each other.
“At this time of the year, I think your leadership needs to step up, and we have a senior-heavy team with 10 seniors, and those guys are all pulling their weight.”
While the seniors have set the tone, two freshmen have paced the offense for the 23-3-3 Bulldogs. Kyle Brothers is tied for the national lead with 24 goals and is alone at the top with 42 points, while Matthew Thompson (22-20-42) is fifth in points. Their linemate, senior Josh Ranalli (17-27-44), is fourth.
That line has propelled Adrian to 4.77 goals per game, the second best in the nation.
In Trinity (21-3-1), Adrian can expect a strong all-around team that ranks sixth in offense, fifth in defense and fourth in the power play. Sophomore Ryan Cole (15-21—36) is tied for 11th in the nation in scoring while sophomore Sean Orlando leads the country with 10 power play goals.
Trinity qualified for the NCAA tournament as an at-large team after being upset by Tufts in the first round of the NESCAC tournament, but the Bantams have since cruised past Nichols and Plattsburgh State to reach the semifinals.
Coach Matt Greason called the Plattsburgh State win “the best job we did all year of being consistent and persistent.”
Krug said he expects to see a team that is “very skilled and quick.”
“It’s going to be interesting to see where the course of the game goes,” he said. “I’m excited just to get there for Friday and get the puck dropped.”