The Vanderbilt Club Ice Hockey team won third place at the Southeastern Collegiate Hockey Conference Tournament this weekend at the Ford Ice Center in Antioch, Tennessee.
It was their first trophy at the SECHC Tournament since the 2011-12 season.
After starting the weekend with an 11-0 drubbing of the Tennessee Ice Vols, the Commodores ran into an Ole Miss team with a hot goaltender in Joe Warnecke, who made 39 saves in a 3-1 win for the Rebels.
Vanderbilt coach Thomas Bernstein, who had to miss the last two games of the tournament due to the birth of his second child, said those kinds of games can be frustrating. However, he was happy with his team’s performance overall.
“I thought it was a fantastic effort in all three games,” he said. “I thought that we played at our max ability and on Saturday, we just didn’t have the hockey gods on our side. The way the game played out, we hit four posts, we had a goal disallowed and we outshot the team by 40-30, but on the broadcast they said it was far more lopsided than that. At least it just felt that way, and I think everybody watching from our side felt that we totally outskated them, and they just got tremendous goalie play on their side and some timely goals.”
In the third place game Sunday morning, Vanderbilt recovered nicely, beating the South Carolina Gamecocks 5-2. The Commodore top scoring line of Nick Sanchez, captain John Longman and Nick Honkala accounted for four of the team’s five goals in the game.
Bernstein said he was thrilled with his team’s resolve in the third place game.
“I was beyond proud of the team for the way they bounced back today,” he said. “You had two teams playing in the third place game that both played semifinals against very talented clubs, they both lost last-second games in the third period and our team came out and showed our best game. I think South Carolina played like a deflated club. I think they’re probably a little better than they showed today.”
While the team was satisfied with finishing with a trophy, the end of the tournament was a bittersweet moment for much of the team. The club has 12 players graduating this year, including key players like Longman, Honkala and goaltender Ryan Kellenberger. Those 12 players oversaw much of the growth of the program from a small force in the SECHC to a powerhouse in the conference.
The seniors also earned Vanderbilt’s first-ever berth in ACHA Division Three Nationals last season, but the team declined the invitation due to injury issues. As a result, the team was barred from postseason play this season.
Bernstein was grateful to the 12 seniors and what they have done for the program, and how rare it is to have such a large class of young men.
“It definitely felt like the end of a chapter,” he said. “I think it’s a special thing when you can get a group of guys that not only this talented, but this large. Most of the time with a club program, you start out with 10 or 12 guys as freshmen and that gets cut down to 4 to 6 guys max by the time they get to be seniors and those seniors are the core of the team. In this case, we’ve got 12 guys in the program who are seniors and they’re not just names on the roster: they are our core players.”
However, he thinks the program will still shine in the future, despite losing such a core of players.
“To say that we will have a challenge to replace their talent on the ice and their leadership in the room would be an understatement,” Bernstein said. “That challenge is an opportunity for the program moving forward.”
Despite the postseason ban, the Commodores are not done playing just yet. They’ll play a game at Bridgestone Arena, home of the NHL’s Nashville Predators, on March 26, likely against the Kentucky Wildcats, who were accepted as a member of the SECHC over the weekend. Should Kentucky accept the invitation, it will be the first-ever meeting between the clubs.
The Georgia Ice Dawgs won the SECHC title for the second straight year over the Ole Miss Rebels on Sunday by a final score of 9-2.