College hockey: Wisconsin-Stevens Point breaks through, wins DIII championship
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- Evan Dixon was on the wrong side of the NCAA Division III men's ice hockey national championship game two years in a row. As a senior, the Wisconsin-Stevens Point captain finally got to walk off the ice as a champion.
"The last couple years, we've been blessed with the opportunity to be in this game, but that feeling of coming up short has stuck with us," Dixon said. "We know what it takes to get to this game as a program and a team. We've got 28 leaders on this team. Everybody knows what it takes to get here, and we were fortunate to come out on top this year."
Dixon and the Pointers, NCAA runners-up in 2014 and 2015, finally broke the jinx Saturday night at Herb Brooks Arena, storming to a 5-1 victory over St. Norbert to claim the program's fifth national title -- second-most in Division III history behind Middlebury's eight -- and its first since 1993.
Dixon, a 5-foot-11, 170-pounder from Novi, Michigan, became an assistant captain for UWSP during the 2013-14 season and has been a team captain each of the last two years. A leader on the ice and in the classroom, Dixon was honored during championship weekend with the NCAA Elite 90 award, given to the athlete who boasts the highest grade point average among participants in each of the NCAA's 90 championship events.
"Being a student-athlete, I know I have to hold up the highest standard -- on and off the ice," said Dixon, who has a 3.97 GPA as a double major in business administration and economics. "I expect it out of myself every day, and I work hard for it. It's just taking things day-by-day and doing what I have to do to put myself in the best spot to be successful."
It was a long journey for Dixon and the rest of the Pointers' core group of leaders. When UWSP went through a four-game losing streak in late November and early December, head coach Chris Brooks made a statement heading into a game against the United States Under-18 National Team.
"I sat up the Saturday night before we played the national program, and the bulk of our team just wasn't where we needed to be to get us to this point," Brooks said. "I made a decision on that Saturday night to take the C's and A's off my captains' jerseys. It was very, very difficult, but at the time it was the right thing to do. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and once they started voicing the voice of me and our culture and the expectation of what it takes to be a champion, they got their letters back."
MORE: Full box score
Four months later, the Pointers closed out an 18-2-1 stretch over their final 21 games to become champions with Dixon, Alex Kromm, Alex Brooks and Kyle Sharkey -- captains' letters proudly displayed on their uniforms -- joining their coach to receive the NCAA championship trophy at center ice.
"It has nothing to do with me. As you could see tonight, these guys are reliant," Chris Brooks said.
Just as they had in Friday's 5-1 semifinal win over SUNY Geneseo, the Pointers pounced early Saturday against a St. Norbert team coming off an epic 8-7 double overtime win less than 24 hours earlier. Junior forward Eliot Grauer, voted the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, got UWSP on the board just 2:40 into the game when Nick D'Avolio won a neutral zone face-off to him on the right wing and Grauer's wrist shot from the right circle squeaked between the left shoulder of Green Knights goalie Tony Kujava and the goalpost -- one second before the penalty expired.
"I saw a little hole with the D-man and shot it with a little bit of a screen, and it just barely got in there," said Grauer, who scored three goals in the Frozen Four.
St. Norbert answered seven minutes later on a power play goal of its own when Tanner Froese's shot from the point was deflected in off the stick of Pointers forward Lawrence Cornellier, but UWSP got back on top thanks to another power play marker with 1:18 left in the period when Alex Brooks pounced on a loose puck in the high slot and blasted a slap shot past Kujava.
"I put one off the post and it was like, 'Ugh, what do I have to do?' but I got it on the second one," Alex Brooks said.
From there, UWSP's explosive line of Cornellier, Kyle Sharkey and Jacob Barber -- quiet through much of championship weekend to that point -- helped put things away. Sharkey had a goal and two assists, Barber had a goal and an assist and Cornellier notched the Pointers' third power play goal of the night.
"You need your power play at this time of year to be a factor, and tonight their power play really won the game for them," said St. Norbert junior defenseman Blake Cooper.
It didn't even matter that the Pointers played most of the final two periods shorthanded after All-American forward Joe Kalisz left the game with an apparently right leg injury following a collision with Kujava in the St. Norbert crease. For a team that fell to St. Norbert in the championship game two years ago in Lewiston, Maine and to Trinity College a year ago in Minneapolis, Saturday night was sweet redemption.
St. Norbert coach Tim Coghlin dismissed the notion that his team was affected by Friday's grueling game against UMass Boston, choosing to praise the Pointers' execution in every aspect of the game -- especially early on.
"Stevens Point was better, and I don't know if I could name one area where we were better," said Coghlin, whose team missed out on a chance for a fifth national title since 2008. "They were better. We've seen them consistently over time, and we know what their strengths are."
NOTES: Grauer was joined on the all-tournament team by two teammates, Alex Brooks and goalie Max Milosek -- who stopped 32 of the 34 shots he faced over the weekend, including 21 saves Saturday. Also on the all-tournament team were Thompson and forward Erik Cooper from St. Norbert and UMass Boston forward Frankie DeAugustine.