Geneseo State hockey coach Chris Schultz is certain about one thing — no matter what his Knights do at the NCAA Division III Frozen Four, he's coaching champions.
"They've faced adversity and they've dealt with it," Schultz said as his Knights prepared to face Wisconsin-Stevens Point in the national semifinals on Friday in Lake Placid, New York. "Another hockey team on the other side of the ice is not going to scare them. I think that's the part of this team that's so strong — the experience, what they've dealt with, and the realization that hockey isn't everything. Life is way more important."
Adversity for these Knights came with the deaths in mid-January of 24-year-old senior defenseman Matthew Hutchinson and his friend Kelsey Annese, a 21-year-old senior captain on the Geneseo women's basketball team. According to police, the two were killed by her distraught ex-boyfriend on a Sunday morning while they slept in Annese's apartment near the college campus in western New York. He then killed himself, police say.
Residents of the small rural community about 35 miles south of Rochester have rallied around the students.
Both players have been honored in front of adoring fans who jammed home games to honor both players. Annese's No. 32, the same number her father wore when he played for Geneseo, hung above the scoreboard like a uniform retirement ceremony on Senior Night last month with her parents watching. Geneseo hockey coach Paul Duffy got Hutchinson's No. 23 stitched on the front of every team jersey, a constant reminder of the affable big guy from North Vancover, British Columbia, who dreamed of becoming a firefighter.
"The time that he spent with us — he was a joyful kid," Schultz said. "He had a lot of passion, a great heart, and he certainly made an impact — probably more than any player I've coached — in the community working with the fire department and different organizations."
"He put the needs of others before his own," Geneseo co-captain Ryan Donnelly added. "That's what really stuck with us the most — he cared about us so much. We knew that he would do anything for us to succeed. It's something to be in position just to get that championship for him."
After that devastating day, the women's basketball team won 10 of its final 12 regular-season games and made the NCAA Tournament before losing in the second round.
And it certainly wasn't easy, not during a grieving process that at times can be awkward. When can you joke around? When must you stay serious?
"As a coach, it was hard to do your job every day," said women's basketball coach Scott Hemer, who was honored a week ago with the Pat Summitt Trophy given annually to the national coach of the year. "It no longer became about basketball. What became more important was the 14 players that are part of the program and making sure that they were in a good place and were able to move forward."
Schultz's crew has lost only once in 14 games as it chases that elusive national title, which would be a first for the school.
And "Hutch" has been part of the impressive run. His jersey has been at every game and he has a stall in the locker room at Herb Brooks Arena as the team prepares for the biggest game of the season, poised to maybe pull off another "Miracle on Ice" in a building made forever famous by the gold medal-winning 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team.
"There's a lot of healing that needs to be done, and I think that our players have provided that strength that people need by going this far," Schultz said. "I tell the guys before every game — if you're ever feeling not confident about something or you're feeling negative about something, just look to the banner, look to that No. 23. That's going to provide you the strength that you're going to need."
This article was written by John Kekis from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.