After a 5-1 loss to John Carroll in the first round of the College Hockey Mid America tournament this past Friday night, the WVU club hockey team’s season officially came to an end.
The Blue Streaks dominated the Mountaineers from start to finish and went on to win the CHMA tournament while WVU’s season ended in the same round as it did last season.
“It’s tough to see this season come to a close,” said WVU head coach AJ Sturges. “It’s tough to be one and done.”
Following a 2-7 start, the Mountaineers finished this season with a regular season record of 13-19 in Sturges’ first full season as the head coach. Some of the team’s signature wins came against Alabama in second game of the year and top CHMA conference teams in Duquesne and Pitt.
With the help of a four-game win streak late in the season and a season sweep of the Panthers, the Mountaineers managed to clinch the final postseason spot in the CHMA tournament.
Sturges credits the team’s progression throughout the season to experience. With only two seniors on the roster, more underclassmen were able to receive valuable playing time on the ice throughout the season as well as adapt to what it takes to be a student-athlete.
“I think that a lot of guys got valuable experience in what club hockey looks like at the division one level,” Sturges said. “It was good to see a lot of guys that experience of what it takes to play at this level and I think that’s really going to help us moving forward.”
As the team enters the offseason and preparations for the program’s 50th season next fall, Sturges looks for the team to expand on its strengths from this past season and make improvements in a number of areas.
Sturges was impressed with how the team rallied around the core principles, stuck together as a group and the comradery they formed, which he hopes continues next season.
When it comes to making improvements for next season, Sturges is looking for the Mountaineers to develop more consistency, confidence and the ability to play three full periods. Making improvements defensively will also be a priority.
As far as player personnel goes, the Mountaineers lose only two seniors to graduation in captain and defenseman Phillip Laurelli and forward Nick Olds. Both were team leaders and relied upon to preserve the WVU hockey tradition and level of play after the midseason coaching change last year.
“It was really valuable to have those guys,” Sturges said. “They’ve seen a lot of change. They’ve seen a lot of transition so to get some insight from them was really good.”
The Mountaineers will return a large number of experienced players for next season. Among those players are goaltenders Ryan Wickiser and Ben Zienty as well as the line of Eric Keefe, Sebastian Thomas and JP Sawyer, who combined for 108 of the team’s 272 regular season points.
“There were a lot of new faces this year that were able to step in and have a big impact,” Sturges said. “I think that given the number of players that we can have coming back and a lot of the upside that these players show, we have great expectations for next year.”
WVU will also add more players through the recruiting process, which is now in full swing with this past season in the books.
Sturges also confirmed that a Division Two team will be brought back to the WVU hockey club starting next year. This additional team will play its own schedule and the coaches will have the opportunity to move players and up down. This will also give players the chance to compete and earn some playing time on the ice.
“We’re really excited for this,” Sturges said. “This is going to give the opportunity to oversee the development of two teams that are giving more people more ice time and competition and just a greater environment for development overall.”
Overall, Sturges’ message to the team this offseason is to prove themselves, stay hungry with the potential that they have for next season and to hold each other accountable.
“It’s going to be time for guys to step up and prove that they’re worth that much attention and that level of excitement,” Sturges said. “It takes a lot to make things like WVU hockey happen.”