One bad period. That was all it took for the San Jose State Spartans' season to come to an end as they fell to the University of Utah Skatin' Utes by a final score of 6-3.
The #7 Spartans were hosting the ACHA Division II West Regional from Sharks' Ice at Fremont when they faced #6 Utah in the first round last Saturday. SJSU captain Kyle Dutra was able to tie up the game at 1-1 headed to the first intermission, but it all fell apart with a 4-goal second period for the Utes.
"I know this was what (hopefully) everyone was thinking about from sun-up to sun-down, every day the prior week," said Spartan forward Steven Stichler. "We needed to mentally and physically be ready to come back to the bench, every shift, exhausted and ready for more. We forgot that hunger, it seemed."
It just seemed like something was off for the Spartans in the second, a problem they've been having all year. Julian Huguet, who saw every game either in the broadcast booth or down at ice-level as a goaltender, agreed: "For some reason we were never able to keep up the energy from minutes 20 to 40, and we let in 4 goals in the most important game of the season because of it."
That's not to say the Spartans rolled over in the second period. Their offense kept them in the game with 2 goals of their own from Dutra and Sam Cimino. If not for the tight defense in the third period, from both teams, the game could have easily been tied up.
The shot totals finished very even: 41-37 in favor of Utah, plenty of opportunities for SJSU to climb back in, but Utah goaltender Pete Gibb had a wonderful night between the pipes. "We had plenty of chances to capitalize on and the puck didn't bounce our way. We hit the post a few times but never gave up and took the momentum in the last period, but it was too late," said forward James Lopez.
Ute forward Tadas Tsibulskis put the final nail in the coffin for the Spartans' season with the empty net goal with 2:05 remaining in the game. It was the lone goal in the last period.
Now that the season is over, how do the Spartans look at their first-round exit and their season as a whole? Can they be content with making it to post-season play in their first season under Head Coach Aaron Mullagh?
The answer seems to be a pretty unanimous 'no.' "No one is satisfied with how we ended the season. I still believe this group of 25 men are capable of winning the national tournament, and I can find you 24 others who agree with me" said Julian Huguet.
General Manager Andy Dickerson echoed that sentiment: "The team's expectations were to win a National Title. That was unequivocally stated by the players and the coaches from Day 1."
That's not just a cliche handed out for interviews, that's the truth. When I had the chance to join the team on their road trips in Arizona and Colorado, winning the National Championship was a major focus in the all the team meetings.
So, by the Spartans' own accounts, they fell short of expectations, but there were still many positives to take out of this year. There was tremendous growth from the players who were put in new roles this year.
The top line carried the offensive load throughout the year. "Sam Cimino started the season looking for a goal per game and surpassed that," said Julian Huguet. Not only did Cimino surpass that mark, but he finished with over 2 points per game with 31 goals and 28 assists in 28 games.
James Lopez was quick to credit his captain, Kyle Dutra, who also finished just shy of 2 points per game for the season. "He is a true leader and leads by example. He was one of our point scorers and was always ready when it came down to business."
Another place where the Spartans needed a player to step-up was in goal. Michael Steininger, who was in his first year as the Spartans starting net-minder, "was a rock between the pipes, my vote for first half MVP," said Andy Dickerson. "He faced a lot of quality scoring chances (13 games with 30+ saves and 4 games with 40+ saves) and did his best when under siege."
Many were also quick to praise the players who had to adjust to playing new positions: Alex Azevedo to the defense full-time and Walt Chu as a dependable third-line center. Mike Schwartz bounced around as both a forward and a defenseman this year before finding a role as the defensive partner for Eric Jones. Under Jones' tutelage, Schwartz developed into a solid blue-liner.
But the best example of growth by a player this year may be Nicholas Matejovsky. Matejovsky, one of the Spartans who was most committed to working in the weight room, was only in his sophomore season with the team. But despite his relatively young age, he showed great maturity as the year went on. His discipline down the stretch was a complete transformation. In his first 18 games, he had 77 penalty minutes. In his last 13, however, he only had 16 PIM and was rewarded with 17 points in that span. "The kid is a beast" added Steven Stichler.
It will be a long summer for San Jose State, but the potential for next season is there. After falling short this year, the Spartans will be determined to come back and finally bring a National Championship to San Jose.
But not everyone gets the second chance to play next year. Steven Stichler is one of the nine graduating seniors leaving the team, in an on-ice role, at least. "I want to be around for as long as the team will have me," said Stichler. "This has been my life for six years; no college memory will come without the thought of what this organization did for me. I owe this team a lot, and I am ready to put in the work to see it done."
There's still one final chance to see the 2011-2012 Spartans as they play the SJSU Alumni team this Saturday at 6:45 pm from Sharks' Ice at San Jose. Notable names returning for the Alumni game include Andy Dickerson, Jeff Sawhill, Mickey Rhodes, Aaron Scott and SJSU's all-time points leader, Sean Scarbrough.
I'd also like to thank everyone who came out to support the team at Regionals, as well as Fear the Fin's own Jason Plank and Matt Taylor. I know the team appreciated everything they did at FTF Night 3, and I'd personally like to thank them for giving me this opportunity to join the writing staff with these articles.
Fight on, Spartans!