RALEIGH, N.C.- “Hamel scores it, Hamel scores it… five to four!”
It’s a call that is burned into my brain ever since I delivered it on February 14, 2015. It was the goal that sent the University of North Carolina to their first A.C.C.H.L. Admirals Cup championship game. More importantly, it was the goal that sent archrival N.C. State club hockey packing– again, short of the title for the third straight season.
The real heartbreak came a year later, in an 8-7 loss to George Washington in the title game for the Wolfpack. Disappointment followed in 2017 with a 4-1 loss to Virginia in the championship matinee. State didn’t even make the final last season.
In fact since winning the Admirals Cup in 2011, N.C. State made four championship game appearances and four times they lost.
And yet– here we are.
Amidst the previous heartbreaks of years past, N.C. State hockey, undefeated, is going to Frisco, Texas for the 2019 A.C.H.A. Men’s Division II National Championship tournament. The Wolfpack are, unequivocally, the best story on ice.
At 26-0, N.C. State is perfect, having won the conference title and achieving the highest in-season and end-of-season ranking in school history. Furthermore, the Wolfpack defeated the third, fourth and fifth-ranked A.C.H.A. Southeast division teams in the course of their run.
While that might not seem like much, consider this. The Southeast division gets to send four teams to the national championships every year. Two teams make it as being the two highest ranked, eight teams then play in a regional tournament with the teams winning two games taking the final slots.
George Washington, Virginia and Charlotte all lost their opening round matchups as A.C.C.H.L. champions in the regional championship in the last three years, squished by the upper echelon of the southeast.
Not only did the Wolfpack win two games at regionals, but they defeated (5) Rider 7-6, and then had to play the host school (3) Liberty, a team State had never defeated in school history. In 2016 and 2017, N.C. State lost to Liberty in Lynchburg, 14-1 and 15-1 respectively.
N.C. State, as only the eight-seed, dismantled Liberty 4-1 with Sam Banasiewicz, Alex Robinson and Parker Szarek scoring for the Wolfpack. Joey Hall was tremendous in net, especially during the third period.
This herculean win came on the back of much doubt among the A.C.H.A. message boards and the 2019 Selection Show where the league all-but-gave a nationals slot to Liberty, a team who was a national-runner up in 2016 and 2017, and had appeared in five straight national tournaments.
And yet– here we are. The Wolfpack are going to Frisco instead.
Compared to N.C.A.A. division I hockey, and to the N.H.L. for that matter, this N.C. State team is doing something extraordinary because these aren’t scholarship athletes. They are students first, then hockey players. Every player is paying dues and buying their own sticks. They ride the bus, eat fast food, and practice into the wee hours of the morning. It’s not cushy, but it’s the A.C.H.A. division II version of college hockey.
A lot of the schools that succeed at this level are either in the north and have guys that just missed making it bigger or they are destination schools, like F.G.C.U. or Liberty, that have an environment to attract the hockey talent it needs.
N.C. State thrives on passion. It’s not just the guys making the sacrifices to play the game either. Fans stand 10 rows deep in a frigid IcePlex to watch what this team does. These same fans will travel, cheer and buy merchandise for a club hockey team. The Wolfpack have a culture.
While N.C. State isn’t a destination school and is far from the hockey cities of New York, Detroit and Boston, but this team has proven that hard word and dedication to the game can get you a long way. That’s a type of inspiration rarely seen in sports anymore; it’s refreshing.
This team competes for the sheer love of the game.
The Wolfpack may not win the championship, but then again, the team has spurned the doubters time and again this season. It doesn’t matter. This season and this run are program-defining strides for the land-grant institution in Raleigh.
After the heartbreak of years past, the Wolfpack have already achieved unmatched success at this level, and what a badge of honor that is to wear. They aren’t supposed to be here.
And yet– here we are.
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