A home rink. An at-capacity roster of student-athletes. A group of coaches, each with a particular area of focus. A set practice schedule — one day dedicated to fitness, another to systems, drills and technique. A locker room, one that houses equipment and the blaring sounds of warm-up music.
Everything about Rowan Division III men’s ice hockey, apart from its designation as a club sport, points to it as a college-recognized hockey team. And, like its men’s and women’s Division II partners, a top-notch team, too, thanks to the program’s steady increases in draw and success since its inception.
The payoff of all the progress came this year when the team met its lofty, yet attainable preseason goal: securing a regional tournament berth for the first time ever.
As the result of their final ranking of fifth in the Atlantic Region of the American Collegiate Hockey Association, the highest in program history, the team was guaranteed a spot in the regional championships in York, Pennsylvania (Feb. 19-20).
“We sat everybody down before we even hit the ice and we asked everybody what their goals were. And pretty much the primary goal for everybody was to get to regionals,” head coach Bruce Kocenski said. “They deserve it. This is an exciting time for us because we know we can beat anybody there.”
In their league tournament — the Delaware Valley Collegiate Hockey Conference, National Division playoffs — the brown and gold entered as the third seed. The team would fall one win shy of capturing the title, dropping the championship game on Feb. 14 to Bryn Athyn College, 7-2.
Getting to that point was an exciting run for the squad, which included a 19-4-4 regular season record, the best in the program’s six-year history. Rowan broke out of the gate winning eight of its first ten games through the end of November; they did not lose a game until Nov. 7, after opening the season on Sept. 26.
According to Kocenski, the team played “a top-15 schedule all season.” Rowan benefited from its grueling schedule the most in preparing for opponents it could see in the postseason.
“We’ve just done a great job of everyone staying together this year. It’s probably one of the closest group of guys I’ve played with,” co-captain Dennis Padick said. “The biggest part is how we’re a family, when past years it hasn’t been like that.”
Rowan’s competitive schedule also led to recognition in the region, as the team was 10th or better in each of the rankings this season.
A moment after a 6-2 win over University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown over the final weekend of the season signaled to the coach where his team is mentally.
“When we beat them, a Johnstown coach and I were talking and he kind of felt like his kids were still playing October hockey. For the first time in my three years here we’re actually playing February hockey,” Kocenski said.
When they hit tough stretches, the team was reminded of a quote and philosophy that’s plastered on the door of the locker room: “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t want to work.”
“If we’re going to win, we’ve got to outwork our opponents. That’s what our philosophy has been since I came in here,” Kocenski said. “We can’t outskill our opponents, we have to outwork them. And this year has really culminated that.”
The quote has defined the program over the last three years. In Kocenski’s first season in 2013, the brown and gold swept through the American Division en route to winning the championship and ending in the rankings for the first time in history at 12th.
Rowan then moved up to the more competitive National Division for the 2014-15 season, finishing fourth in the league and one spot up at 11th in the rankings. Kocenski says the jump in divisions was a big step for the guys on the team and for the program.
“It really helped a lot with recruiting because there are kids coming in here who want to play more competitive hockey,” Kocenski said. “We play in probably one of the top-four leagues in the country, in the DVCHC.”
For a number of players, the journey to the current, historic season began even before Kocenski took over at the helm. They’re not about to take this chance lightly.
“Really with this team here it’s just the climax of the seniors,” assistant captain Brandon Mead said. “It’s really just the experience of everybody.”
It’s now onto regionals Friday against Robert Morris, a team Rowan has already beat and a matchup that they have prepared for since last Thursday. Kocenski, who first knew of the ending ranking and opening-round opponent, took a few minutes before a practice that night to announce the news to his team.
The response? Sticks tapped to the ice in excitement, but there was a feeling that they were snubbed a bit. During the season, Rowan tied fourth-seeded California University of Pennsylvania, split a two-game series with third-seeded Neumann University and even defeated second-seeded Farmingdale State, which earned one of the two automatic qualifiers.
“I think we kind of deserve a higher spot than where we are now but you’ve got to take what you can get. We’ll just progress from there,” co-captain Mitch Oliveto said. “I can see us coming up with a win if we see them again.”
Rowan DIII knows its far from the stereotypes of a club sports team; achievements through 2015-16 have gained the program respect beyond division or league.
The season isn’t over either, and Rowan wouldn’t mind two more wins this weekend in York. The team would be set up for its first-ever trip to nationals in March.
“This is our year. If there’s any year for us to go for a national championship, this is the year,” Kocenski said.
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