The DII National Club Championship game and Florida Gulf Coast University have become synonymous in recent years as the Eagles entered 2015-16 on the heels of two-straight title game appearances and only three years removed from their 2012 National Collegiate Hockey Association title.
FGCU suffered a pair of tough letdowns in Boston and Utah the last two years, losing to New Hampshire (2014) and New York University (2015) in each respective tournament. The pair of title game losses dropped the Eagles’ record in the final to 1-3 overall with their lone triumph coming over defending champions, Grand Valley State University (GVSU) in 2012.
The Eagles found their way this spring, triumphing over Liberty, 4-1, to capture their second National Club Championship.
The last two seasons were extremely tough on our group,” said Matthew Maida, FGCU Hockey Club director of communications. “It took a tremendous amount of courage and hard work for our team to get back to the championship game again in 2016 in West Chester, Pa.
“To finally pull through on our third-straight finals appearance was as much a relief as it was a crowning achievement for a group who could have easily won Nationals three years in a row.”
The current crop of Eagles may not realize it, but their struggles the last two years and their success this season is nearly a mirror image of the team they dispatched in West Chester. Entering the 2012 finals, GVSU was looking to defend their title before being toppled by FGCU. The Lakers would fall in the 2013 title game as well, marking a three-year run with a 1-2 record in the title game.
FGCU’s current group of seniors were on hand to take up the runner-up mantle from GVSU for the next two years, a trend they were able to finally buck this year.
“We had a large senior class this season and it was especially important to get the job done before these young men graduated and went on their separate ways,” Maida said. “When you compete together and win a championship together, you become instantly bonded for life. I think our graduating seniors will appreciate this even more as the years pass and they reflect on their time with the Eagles.”
Early struggles were a theme of FGCU’s recent title game struggles and they were in danger of repeating the same pattern, giving Liberty an early edge in shots to begin the game. However, it was a tremendous team effort from scoring leader Dillon Duprey that opened the scoring for the Eagles.
Liberty struck back in the middle frame on a power play tally from Ben Freymond. Freymond’s point shot found its way past Mike Reed to snap a lengthy extra man drought for the Flames.
The tie would be short lived, however, as the Eagles retook the lead with just 15 seconds remaining in the second as Mike Chemello stuffed in a rebound after a late-period faceoff. The possession started after a late rush from Dan Echeverri that forced an offensive zone draw for the Eagles. An even draw led to a loose puck that was jammed to the nearside post by Echeverri where Chemello managed to find the rebound just outside the paint.
Reed and the Eagles defense would carry the load over the final 20 minutes as Chemello’s late second period goal would go down as the winner.
FGCU didn’t necessarily need a second National Title to cement their status as a DII Club powerhouse. The organization has been amongst the most successful in the ACHA over the past five-plus years, the 2016 title merely crowns one of the nation’s strongest Club programs.
The Eagles have continuously drawn elite talents from across the country as the warm weather and on-ice success of Southwest Florida serve as a draw for nearly every type of player.
“The quality of the players that are interested and attracted to FGCU for both their education and the sport of hockey improves every season, so much so that we have even started to get inquiries from NCAA D1 players looking for a change,” Maida said. I could never had imagined the hockey would get so competitive and the player personnel so talented when we started and every season we are still surprised at just how good our recruits are when they hit the ice.”
FGCU’s roster has grown to include players from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe and even South America. 2016 Tournament MVP Daniel Echeverri has gained notoriety not only for his play on the ice, but his Colombian roots. His heritage is something the FGCU organization is proud to advertise as his on and off-ice success serves as a hallmark for the hockey program and the university as a whole.