The Norwich men's hockey team returning to campus with the D-III National Championship trophy is not an unfamiliar sight in Northfield. It's the program's fourth since 2000. But it never gets any less special, especially considering it's the first for this group of players.
"Oh it's awesome, you really can't really beat this feeling at all," said senior forward Austin Surowiec. "It still feels a little surreal to be honest. You know it's our last game, some of the seniors' last game here so it's crazy to go out on a win."
The Cadets were the best team in the country all season, but that might have been largely forgotten had they not proven it this weekend. Norwich ventured to Utica, New York for the Frozen Four. Friday's semifinal opponent: the Bulldogs of Adrian College.
"They're probably the biggest team I think I've ever coached against," said head coach Mike McShane of Adrian. "I used to coach Division I for a number of years, and I don't remember seeing a bigger team."
When Kevin Salvucci scored to put Norwich up 4-2 in the third, the game seemed to be in hand. But Adrian disagreed. The Dogs scored twice in the last six minutes to force overtime and then forced Braeden Ostepchuk to save the day a few times. But on the counter, the Cadets caught a break. Connor Evangelista's shot deflected off a defender's skate, and Ian Williams slammed home the rebound to send Norwich into the final.
"I didn't want to miss," said Williams. "I was thinking I might have a little bit of space to beat the goalie and didn't really get all of it, but things worked out. I got a good bounce and it took us to the next step."
Saturday posed another big test with the Cadets squaring off against NESCAC champ Trinity. The game was back and forth through the first two periods, but Norwich seized control in the third. Paul Russell played it to himself, fell, got back up, and snuck it past the keeper to make it 3-1. Then with an empty net, William Pelletier scored his second of the weekend. That goal sealed the national title and earned Pelletier Most Outstanding Player honors.
"Obviously it's the best moment of my life," Pelletier said. "I just share this moment with all the fans, all my family, and all the teammates, all the Norwich organization. It's just an unbelievable feeling."
In addition to capturing their fourth national title since 2000, Norwich finished the season on a 25-game unbeaten streak, going more than four months without a loss.
"There's so many good teams, you know," said McShane. "They have a good feeling over there, an excellent team. Our leadership was all the seniors, whether they had an "A", anything. I was blessed."
Of course it certainly didn't hurt to have the best fans in D3 hockey this year, and that's what the team wanted to emphasize Sunday.
"It felt like a home game out in Utica," said senior defenseman Cody Smith. "Every game this year was a home game. Everywhere we went, they followed us and they're just unbelievable. It's just something I'm going to remember for the rest of my life."
And now the returnees turn their attention to next year.
"We'll start work next week to get another one next year!" McShane said.
The quest for one for the thumb begins now.
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