(Photo Credit: @baseballmegs)
The final horn sounded. “Gonna Fly Now” from Rocky began, but was quickly drowned out by the roar and applause of fans. SDSU skaters filled into Parks Owensby’s crease, cheering, laughing, and hugging. The Aztecs raised and slammed their sticks to salute their fans. They had their first victory in ACHA Division 1.
“It’s been a long time coming, this is their Stanley Cup tonight,” said head coach Phillip Bateman, smiling.
147 days ago, the San Diego State University Aztecs welcomed fans to the Army Kroc Center for the season-opener. 2022-23 would be their inaugural season in ACHA’s Division 1. 146 days ago, the Aztecs dropped their second-consecutive loss to the University of Colorado Buffaloes in a highly physical matchup. The Aztecs were 0-2.
The following week, the Aztecs dropped both games against Northern Arizona University, a Division 2 opponent the Aztecs had defeated twice last season. The Aztecs remained winless.
“We knew this was not gonna be an easy season, every night was gonna be a battle. No team was gonna be a push-over,” stated Bateman.
Over the course of the next 139 days, the team’s first win of 2022-23 still evaded them. Despite a memorable trip and three games in Las Vegas, three games played in the team’s trip to New York, and 20 total hard-fought matchups—the Aztecs were yet to be rewarded for their efforts.
“When you go winless, it drags on you. It makes you question whether you can play at this level… it’s hard to see improvement,” noted Bateman.
But, the Aztecs had reason to be especially excited for tonight’s matchup against George Mason University. 113 days ago, the Aztecs took the Patriots to overtime in their closest contest of the season, an eventual 3-2 overtime loss. As Bateman put it: “for a while, we’ve circled this game on the calendar where we might be able to steal one.”
The Aztecs took an early lead in the contest, courtesy of Shane Ege’s second goal of the season. After the George Mason University Patriots tied the game, goals from Ian Stentz and Michael Eng saw the Aztecs enter the third period with a 3-1 lead.
The Patriots struck just one minute into the third period. With 8:42 remaining, the Aztecs gave up an untimely short-handed goal. The game was tied, with GMU holding all the momentum and poised to complete the comeback. Day-147 of the Aztecs’ season looked likely to have a similar result as Day-1.
“When that slump happened in the third period—where we gave back our two goal lead—I think they knew it wasn’t George Mason that was putting up this push,” Bateman shared. “We had come out a little bit too flat.”
“Up and down the bench, they were encouraging each other, getting the energy back,” the coach added.
This energy resulted in a moment 147 days in the making:
Ege had the puck behind the Patriot’s net. He flung the puck towards Isaiah Tano in the slot, who tried to get a shot off. The puck found its way to Nolan Conrad, who slid it past the opposing goaltender.
Luke Desmarais’ empty netter sealed the Aztecs’ landmark victory.
“They’ve all improved. From the time we hit the ice back in training camp, to when we got off the ice two weeks ago against ASU: they are a better collection of hockey players. But when you don’t win, they don’t buy it.” Bateman was elated the team could now see the progress they have made throughout the season.
The Aztecs’ head coach was especially complimentary of the team’s effort in tonight’s game: “Attention to detail sometimes comes down to a ‘PK-mentality’; a desperation. Every single time you get out there you have to finish your check, win your puck battle, clear the zone, get pucks down low, do all the cliche little things. They add up to a team-win.”
“I was proud of the guys,” added Conrad, the game-winning goal scorer. “Everybody banged bodies tonight and worked hard. We can see that effort put up on the scoreboard.”
The head coach also mentioned what this victory meant to the club’s seniors: “I think they’ll leave with a lot of pride knowing that they were a part of that first (win). This has been a season of firsts.”
Those seniors will be suiting up in their last season with the Scarlett and Black, as tomorrow the Aztecs will finish their season in a rematch with the GMU Patriots. Puck drop is at 8:30 p.m. for the Aztecs’ final game of 2022-23.