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.
Three AJHL alumni were also crowned champions in the victory: BJ Duffin (Olds Grizzlys), Alex Kromm (Okotoks Oilers / Calgary Canucks / Royals) and Jesse Gordichuk (Olds Grizzlys / Fort McMurray Oil Barons).
“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.
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.”
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.”