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In a heartbreaking loss in the final championship game against Buffalo, Penn State Altoona’s club ice hockey team took second place in the National Collegiate Hockey Association’s tournament, held March 18-20, 2016, in Newark, Ohio.
In its first ever national tournament, the team played a total of four games, first taking on and beating Union College with a score of 8-6. The team then played against California Lutheran University coming away with a 7-6 victory. The team went up against Saint Vincent next, winning with a 7-2 score, then lost to Buffalo with a final score of 4-2.
It was a disappointing end to a strong season, to be sure, but general manager and head coach Tom Lantz was beyond proud of the team. He said, “Winning isn’t measured in the number of wins or championship titles. The true meaning of the word ‘winning’ is accomplishing a goal. This team set a lot of goals, and by achieving those goals they put Penn State Altoona ice hockey on the map. This is a very special team that will remain very close to my heart. In fact, they are much more than a team. They are my family.”
Established in 2002, Penn State Altoona’s club ice hockey team competes in the College Hockey East (CHE), a collegiate club sports hockey league comprised of colleges and universities from western Pennsylvania and surrounding areas. The team is also a member of the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA), and this year joined the National Collegiate Hockey Association (NCHA), which includes teams from all over the country.
Penn State Altoona’s club ice hockey team is unique for a few reasons. One is that the team practices off-campus, so players have to be able to secure their own rides to and from training. They must also fund themselves for the most part, which can cost upward of $2,000 per player each season. And third, because a number of Altoona’s students transfer to University Park after two years, primarily freshmen and sophomores compete against other teams that have had the same core group of players for four or even five years. In essence, Altoona is turning over a new team nearly every two years. “To put out a competitive team is difficult because of that,” said Lantz. “But we get a lot of talented kids here.”
Never was that more evident than last year. Coming off of a previous lackluster season, the team regrouped and set some goals for itself. Said then-co-captain Mike Ludwig, “It was a good learning experience for us. We didn’t have the year we wanted to, so we hit it hard as soon as the fall semester started so that wouldn’t happen to us again.”
As the players started to build the team, they were pleasantly surprised to see how well they worked together and played as a group. They began to rack up the wins throughout the season, becoming more focused and determined with each success. The team practiced three times a week, once off-ice at Dorman’s Sports Performance and twice on the ice at Galactic, usually until after midnight. “This was a fantastic team, one like no other I’ve ever had,” said Lantz. “The dedication and brotherhood was amazing. They were such a focused and determined group. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
The guys hung out outside of practice, as well. “We did everything together. We watched NHL games at each other’s houses, ordered pizza, and played Xbox. We were just a really close team,” stated Ludwig, now a junior from Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey. Players helped each other keep up on school work and supported one another through the other pressures of college. They performed community service together through Blair County’s Mending Hearts animal rescue, and offered a skating fundraiser in October that collected money for THON. That kind of comradery only strengthened the team on the ice. “We loved it; we were always with each other. Of course we argued and fought, but that’s what families do,” laughed then-assistant captain Nico Gricco.
In February 2016, the team won its first ever CHE conference championship game against Saint Vincent with a final score of 5-2. Although the CHE is separate from the NCHA, the team’s wins for the CHE count toward the NCHA record, which led them to securing a bid for the NCHA nationals. Gricco was the leading scorer for the NCHA league, and the team also had five of the top ten scorers in the league, an impressive number.
Ludwig, who after being accepted to Penn State Altoona immediately made sure the college had a hockey team, said, “It was a big deal. I’d never had a season like this in my hockey career. I’ve played my whole life, and to get to compete at a national level was pretty mind-boggling.”
All three of the captains were honored to be a part of a team that did so well and one that made a big name for Altoona ice hockey. “It was a great group of guys, and there was nothing better than getting ready for nationals,” stated then-co-captain Jeff Hagan. “From the beginning of the season, it was our goal to get to nationals. To make it as far as we did is an accomplishment in itself, and I am so proud.”
Added Gricco, “Although it wasn’t the result we hoped for, we have nothing to be ashamed of. We had a great run, and the memories and relationships we created can never be forgotten or broken. We are one big family. I wouldn’t trade this experience and these memories for anything.”
In what team members would describe as a fitting end to the ride, Lantz was named Coach of the Year by the NCHA after the final game at nationals.