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WCRHL championships big on intrigue with nationals approaching


Championship tournaments are always exciting and this year’s Western Collegiate Roller Hockey League (WCRHL) finals were especially so.

The 10-team event, held March 4 at Corona Inline, determined championships in four divisions: Division I, Division II, Division III and Division AA. Intrigue was definitely apparent as the best-of-three Division I championship series went the full distance and the top regular season finisher in both Division II and Division III were unable to repeat in the championship playoffs.

“It was a great weekend with some really tight games,” WCRHL league director Brennan Edwards said. “The final regular-season event two weeks prior still had a lot of games being played across divisions, which meant a lot of high scoring games. At the conference championships, the games were much closer, great games actually.

“The University of Arizona versus Arizona State University Division AA three-game series just went two games, with ASU winning both games, but each win was by just a single goal. The ASU versus Grand Canyon University Division I three-games series went the distance; the games were great. GCU came out in Game 1 with a ton of energy and jumped to an early lead, never looking back. ASU found it difficult to get on track that game. Games 2 and 3 were much different – a 6-4 ASU win and a 2-1 ASU win in the final. These games were absolutely great. It has been a while since we have had such great competition in Division I in the WCRHL.”

The other two divisions didn’t disappoint in excitement level with CSU-Fullerton upending regular season leader University of Arizona for the Division II title and UC Santa Barbara, the regular-season second-place finisher, claiming the Division III crown over Cal Poly Pomona, the regular season third-place finisher.

The format was streamlined to fit into one day of non-stop, end-to-end action.

Two teams competed in both Division I and the AA-Division, with championships in both divisions determined by a best-of-three series. Division II and Division III both included three teams, with a preliminary round-robin determining the two finalists.

As an encore, 11 WCRHL teams received bids to the National Collegiate Roller Hockey Championships April 19-23 in Irvine. A few rematches are bound to happen in what expects to be another exciting championship tournament.

Division I

Arizona State (15-1) and Grand Canyon (12-4) finished with the top two records among the 12 active WCRHL teams during the regular season. ASU’s lone loss in conference play was 3-2 to GCU on Oct. 29. The Sun Devils won the remaining four games against their Division I rival by scores of 4-2, 3-2, 6-3 and 6-4 in what turned out to be a tight five-game series.

Meanwhile, all of GCU’s conference’s losses were to ASU.

Both teams tested themselves against top competition in an inter-regional event Feb. 4-5 in Palatine, Ill. Arizona State finished 3-2 with wins over Bethel (2-1 in overtime), Henry Ford College (3-1) and Michigan State (7-2) and losses to Lindenwood (8-3 and 7-2).

Goaltender Lane Hartwell grabbed first star of the game honors in the victories against Bethel (.952 save percentage) and Henry Ford College (.962 save percentage) while Logan Corrigan tallied four goals and two assists as the top star in the win over Michigan State. Grant Ziegler netted the OT winner against Bethel.

Grand Canyon defeated Michigan State by a score of 9-2 but dropped its other four games by close margins – 4-3 to Ohio State, 4-3 to Henry Ford College, 6-5 in overtime to Bethel and 4-3 in overtime to Lindenwood.

Ruben Gonzalez was the Antelopes’ first star against Michigan State with two goals and one assist while Aydin Schwetz earned second star honors with two goals. GCU completed a sweep of the three star awards as Logan Estes collected the third star with one goal and one assist.

The strong showing by both teams at the inter-regional set up a climactic showdown at the conference finals.

The Antelopes seized the early momentum with a 4-1 victory in the opening game of the three-game championship series. Brydon Fisk was the game’s first star with a goal and assist while Gonzalez was the second star with a goal and assist. Schwetz (one goal) completed the GCU sweep of the game’s honor roll.

But the series was far from over as the Sun Devils mounted a timely comeback with a pair of clutch victories – 6-4 and 2-1 – to keep their Division I dynasty rolling.

ASU seized the momentum in the second game with a 3-2 first-period lead and expanded its lead to 4-2 and 5-3 before finally settling for a two-game victory. Arizona State swept the three star awards with Mason Parker picking up first star with two goals and one assist, Jaden Nahoi-Barciar receiving second star billing with two goals and Corrigan earning third star with one goal.

The series-deciding third game was played exceptionally close to the vest, as might be expected. Each team scored in the first period for a 1-1 standoff, Zavion McCovy scored the game’s jump goal on a power play for GCU while Anthony Paquet responded with an even-strength goal later in the period.

Nahoi-Baricar scored an unassisted goal in the second period to put the Sun Devils on top, 2-1. That was the end of the scoring as the teams skated to a tense but scoreless final period. Hartwell netted the game’s No. 1 star with a .955 save percentage as GCU out-shot ASU 22-13. Nahoi-Baricar was named second star with the game-winning goal while Paquet (one goal) completed Arizona State’s post-game honors sweep.

Hartwell earned recognition as the series MVP. Overall, he logged a 2.11 goals-against average with a .901 save percentage and five shutouts in 20 total games between the pipes.

“We knew going into the best-of-three series with GCU that we were going to have earn every win,” ASU program director Nick Boyarsky said. “We came out flat in Game 1 and GCU took advantage of that and pounced. Going into Game 2 our team regrouped and played some of the best hockey of their season. GCU themselves regrouped for Game 3 and forced us to play one of our best defensive games of the season. But, more than anything, the goaltending of Lane Hartwell led our team to its eventual victory.”

Regular-season leaders included GCU’s Schwetz with 37 goals and 53 points while Frisk tied ASU’s Parker for the assist lead (19). Frisk ranked runner-up to Schwetz with 40 points and finished third overall with 21 goals.

ASU’s Matt Cornish edged Frisk with 22 goals to finish third with 37 points.

GCU’s Guido Pachero had an outstanding season in the cage with a 2.70 GAA, .827 save percentage and 11 wins.

Division II

Arizona (9-6, one overtime loss) and Fullerton (8-8) were the top finishers in the three-team division that also included Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (5-11).

The Wildcats and Titans engaged in three regular season games, with Arizona winning two (by scores of 6-2 and 7-2) and Fullerton winning once (6-2).

The three teams engaged in a preliminary round-robin to face off the conference championship tournament to determine the two teams that would advance to the final.

Fullerton defeated Cal Poly, 7-2, in the first game while Arizona topped Fullerton, 5-1, in the second game. Arizona earned the No. 1 seed with a 7-1 win over Cal Poly.

But the tables turned as the Titans roared back with a commanding 9-0 shutout victory to claim the division championship over the Wildcats.

Understandably, Fullerton swept the three-star awards. Ryan Tuckwood took first star honors with two goals and two assists, followed by Ethan Flores with one goal and three assists as the second star and Brayden Magness as the third star with two goals.

The Titans piled up a 27-11 edge in shots with goaltender Kurt Yano (Division II MVP) posting an 11-save shutout.

Arizona had swept the three star awards in the teams’ round-robin matchup: Alec Cadieux (two goals, first star), Hudson Fox (two goals, second star) and Kevin Bird (one goal, one assist, third star).

Fox had led the division in the regular season with 46 points while tying teammate Dylan Smith with a division-best 29 goals.

Arizona’s Ethan Zorbas posted the top regular-season GAA at 3.91 while Yano had the top save percentage at .820.

Tuckwood was the Titans’ regular season leader with 18 goals and 29 points.

The Titans and Wildcats could rematch in the upcoming national tournament, so the season series isn’t quite finished yet.

“Our D2 team went into the WRCHL regional championships at the top of our division,” Arizona club president Griffin Sherwood said. “We won our round-robin games against Cal Poly and against CSU Fullerton. Unfortunately, our team broke down in the championship game against CSU Fullerton and lost.

“This was a heartbreaking defeat, but it is also motivating us to perform at nationals. Since then, we are back in Tucson and working harder than ever before nationals.”

It’s also a motivating factor for Fullerton, which won national championships in 2017 and 2019 behind goaltender Ron Best, who will now be shooting to win a national championship as a head coach with his alma mater.

Division III

The top three teams in the four-team division qualified for the championship tournament – San Jose State University (11-5), UC Santa Barbara (9-5, two overtime losses) and Cal Poly Pomona (5-10, one overtime loss). Northern Arizona University (1-15) was the fourth-place team in the division during regular-season play.

Santa Barbara opened the round-robin with a 10-6 win over Pomona while Pomona bounced back to edge San Jose State, 8-7, before Santa Barbara eliminated San Jose State from a place in the championship game with an 11-1 win.

Santa Barbara’s Brad Price, the Division III regular season leader in goals (39), assists (18) and points (57), tallied five goals and three assists in the win over Pomona and upped that with six goal and two assists in the round-robin win over regular season points leader San Jose State.

Pomona’s Matthew Augustine followed Price on the scoresheet with 19 goals and 28 points as the division’s No. 2 scorer. Augustine racked up three goals and one assist in the round-robin win over San Jose State while teammate Brayden Fleming had two goals and one assist.

The Broncos erased a 5-3 San Jose State lead with four goals in the third period, including two power-play goals that stood up as the game-tying and game-winning goals. Fleming scored twice in the final stanza that featured an outburst of six goals between the teams. Justin Salamat netted the game-winner with just two seconds left in the game.

But Price had the last word with three goals and two assists in the Gauchos’ 8-2 championship game victory over Pomona. Karsten Lansing added two goals and two assists in the win for good measure.

“We lost a couple tight games to D3 teams this season but felt that we were the team to beat all year,” Price explained. “Our goalie, Andre Martins Rodrigues, is really talented and the best in the division, in my opinion. He’s only played two years of roller goalie after growing up playing quad hockey goalie in Portugal, so it’s pretty amazing how quickly he’s been able to figure it out.

“The other main thing, I think, is that our offense started to click. For the most part, our defense this season was pretty strong and did a good job limiting goals against, but there were games and stretches of games where the offense dried up somewhat. The team came to regionals fired up and ready to play, and it showed — we had goals coming from all over the lineup. We’re a tough team to stop when we’re rolling out 5-6 guys who can score regularly. Hopefully, we can keep the ball rolling into nationals and show some of those east coasters what California roller is all about.”

Price and Martins-Rodrigues, who topped the division in the regular season with a 4.20 GAA, .792 save percentage and four shutouts, shared co-MVP honors in the division playoffs.

Justin Norcia paced San Jose State in the regular season with 16 goals and 25 assists while Diego Rosales led the division with 11 goaltender wins while posting a 4.92 GAA and a .779 save percentage.

Pomona coach John Paerels said his team is looking forward to competing at this years’ nationals after being unable to compete last year.

“It’s really nice to have it local,” Paerels said. “It will save us a lot of travel and money, but we’ll miss out on the team bonding time that usually takes place at nationals. Division III will be the largest division at nationals and should be wide-open.”

AA Division

The developmental division featured three teams in 2022-23: Arizona State (11-5), Arizona (9-6, one overtime loss) and Fullerton (5-10, one overtime loss).

ASU met the Wildcats in a best-of-three championship series, with the Sun Devils prevailing by narrow scores of 4-3 and 3-2.

The teams had met four times in the regular season. U of A won the first matchup by a score of 7-3, followed by three victories by ASU (8-2, 3-1 and 4-3).

The last two games were more indicative of the teams’ playoff series.

Arizona State held leads of 2-1 and 3-2 in the opening game of the series before Tyler Pear tied the game for the Wildcats with an unassisted goal in the third period. Nolan Smith, assisted by Ethan Briggs, tallied the game-winner for ASU on a power-play goal.

Smith received first star honors with a hat trick while Jacob Crayne drew second star honors for the Sun Devils with a goal and assist. Pear (two goals) was the game’s third star.

Jonathan Reuss made nine saves on 12 shots to back-stop the Sun Devils to the win while Ethan Valentine stopped 19 of 23 ASU shots in defeat.

Zachary Zebrow gave Arizona a 1-0 lead in the second game with the only goal of the first period, assisted by Grant Marcy. Zebrow, set up by Christian Michalowski, scored on a power play in the second period to double the lead to 2-0 for the Wildcats.

But the Tucson-based team could not hold the lead to force a third game in the series as Arizona State rallied with the only three goals in the third period, including a pair by Zack Dartez to grab first star of the game honors.

Smith scored a power-play goal to tie the game, 2-2, while Crayne recorded two assists in the decisive period.

Smith, with four goals in the two games, earned MVP honors in the series.

“U of A was able to keep both games extremely close with a combination of patience and stellar goaltending,” ASU’s Boyarsky noted. “Both (of those factors) forced us to play our best offensive game to get the chances we wanted to eventually get the two wins.”

“Our AA team played its hardest, but a short bench was not in our favor,” Sherwood added. “We were still happy with these close games against another great AA team, and our AA team wants redemption at nationals.

“Both teams (Division II and Division AA) are very excited about nationals. We love playing at the Irvine rink, and for many of our players, it was their home rink growing up.”

Smith and Fullerton’s Caden Fehr tied for the regular season points lead, each with 33 points. Fehr led the division with 23 goals while Crayne had 20 and Smith had 19. Dartez was the regular-season leader with 15 assists, followed by Smith with 14.

Valentine was the regular-season goaltending leader with a 3.84 GAA, nine wins and a .837 save percentage.

Back to the rink

WCRHL teams receiving bids to this month’s nationals include ASU and GCU in Division I, U of A and Fullerton in Division II, Pomona, San Jose State, UC Santa Barbara in Division III and U of A and ASU in the AA Division.

Alternates include San Luis Obispo (Division II) and NAU (Division III).

It could be a bonanza for several WCRHL teams after placing high in the final NCRHA coaches poll, released March 15. Arizona State is ranked No. 2 behind No. 1 Lindenwood and No. 3 Bethel in Division I while Grand Canyon University is No. 5 among eight teams in the National Collegiate Roller Hockey Association’ (NCRHA’s) top division.

Arizona earned the No. 4 spot in the final regular season Division II poll while Fullerton is No. 6 and Cal Poly SLO is No. 12 out of 14 ranked teams.

UC Santa Barbara secured the No, 7 position among Division III teams while San Jose State is No, 11 among the 19 schools receiving votes.

Division AA poll leaders include ASU at No. 5, Arizona at No. 6 and Fullerton at No. 9 out of 13 teams.

Photos/WCRHL/Lynette Zorbas

— Phillip Brents

(April 4, 2023)

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