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Colby’s Cinderella Run

Ever since Shawn Walsh took the University of Maine Black Bears from Hockey East bottom-feeder to national championship contender overnight back in 1987, March had been a month that hockey fans in our state looked forward to. It meant that the boys of winter from Orono were likely chasing another title.

In recent years, those trips to the NCAA tournament have been much fewer and farther between. Maine’s last trip to the national tournament came in 2012, led by Hobey Baker Award finalist Spencer Abbott.

But, 2017-18 certainly brought them closer to a return trip. A sixth-place finish in Hockey East and an appearance in the conference quarterfinals was a better finish than the team has had since the arrival of Red Gendron.

Plus, the UMaine women’s hockey program had, arguably, its best season in program history. Nationally ranked for most of the season, Richard Reichenbach was named Hockey East Coach of the Year after his team went 19-14-5 overall and posted an 11-9-4 Hockey East record, good enough to finish third place. They also earned a trip to the conference semifinals.

However, the best college hockey story in our state this year occurred a 66-mile drive to the south on I-95 in Waterville.

On a mid-January Friday night at the nearly 70-year-old Alfond Rink, the Colby Mules had just lost 3-2 to Middlebury, the last place team in the New England Small College Athletic Conference. Only two months earlier, Colby had opened its season with a 9-1 win at Middlebury. The defeat sent the Mules below the 0.500 mark with only a month left in the regular season.

To that point, the month of January had been dismal for the Mules. They’d won only one out of seven games they played, and had lost four straight, with the Middlebury game being the only close one in the bunch.

This wasn’t how things were supposed to be going for Colby. The previous season, they had finished second place in NESCAC, but saw their postseason run end on home ice in the NESCAC Quarterfinals when they were upset by Wesleyan. The 2017-18 Mules returned a good portion of its offensive firepower, and one of the better goalies in the conference.

Yet, with only one month left, a season of promise was quickly slipping away. “As a coaching staff and players, we went through a pretty thorough autopsy of what had just taken place,” Head Coach Blaise MacDonald told me while I filled as one of the hosts of The Morning Jab on the Big Jab Sports Radio in Portland last week.

“We had to come together and come to terms with how we could work together in a better way,” he said. That involved controlling things they could control, like their habits in practice, their preparation, and their approach to each game, each period, each individual shift.

After the Middlebury loss on January 19, the Mules won three straight. They hit another bump in the road in early February, when they lost back-to-back conference road games at Hamilton and Amherst.

They went 2-0-2 in the last four games of the regular season to finish sixth in the ten-team conference, a disappointing finish to be sure. But, their redemption story was only just beginning.

The Mules headed to Amherst for another date with the Mammoths in the NESCAC Quarterfinals. Having lost three weeks earlier at Orr Rink by a score of 5-1, they fell behind 1-0 after one period. It looked like Colby’s season may come to an early end again.

Slovakian senior Mario Benicky led the charge back, though, scoring twice and adding an assist as Colby flipped the score line from three weeks earlier to win 5-1.

Entering the third period of their NESCAC Semifinal against Wesleyan, the Mules held a 2-1 lead thanks to two first period goals by First-Year Spencer Hewson. Sophomore Kienan Scott scored less than a minute into the third, then seniors Cam MacDonald and Phil Klitirinos put the Mules on cruise control to another 5-1 win. Senior netminder Sean Lawrence, a transfer from Division I Quinnipiac, stopped 39 shots.

In the Championship Game, the Mules had to face Trinity, the defending conference champion and Division III national runner-up from the previous season. After a scoreless first, junior Zach Hale and Hewson scored second period goals to put the Mules up by two heading to the third. Trinity pulled a goal back early in the third period, and with the home crowd behind them, it felt as though momentum had shifted.

Not for long. Just 13 seconds after the Trinity goal, Cam MacDonald entered the zone down the left wing and skated to the goal line on the rush. He decided to fling the puck toward the slot quickly to try and catch Trinity’s defense and goalie napping.

It worked. His attempt glanced off goalie Alex Morin’s skate and into the short side of the net. All of a sudden, all of the Trinity momentum was gone and Colby believed. After MacDonald added an empty net goal, the Mules could celebrate their first NESCAC hockey title and a trip to the NCAA tournament.

Up first was the University of New England Nor’Easters, the top offensive team in all of Division III, coached by former Maine Black Bear player Kevin Swallow, an up-and-coming and highly respected young coach in college circles.

The script was familiar for Colby: they fell behind on the road only to claw back in the middle period. Scott scored two of the Mules’ three second period goals to put Colby ahead for good on their way to a 4-2 win.

Colby would have to take to the road again for their NCAA Quarterfinal, taking on nationally-ranked SUNY Geneseo, located in a quaint town about a 40-minute drive south of Rochester.

Junior defenseman Thomas Stahlhuth put Colby ahead early in the second period. The lead held until mid-way through the third. Tied 1-1 late, the game appeared destined for overtime with a Frozen Four bid on the line.

After MacDonald forced a turnover near the Colby blue line in the closing seconds, he hustled the puck forward to Stahlhuth, who entered the zone and ripped a shot toward the net. His attempt was blocked directly into the path of Colby First Year forward Justin Grillo, who sent the puck into the goal with only 1.6 left to send Colby to its first ever Division III Frozen Four.

Held at Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, home of the Miracle On Ice, it seemed all too fitting for this Colby team to advance there via a miracle finish. The goal was dubbed some around the program “The Miracle To Lake Placid.”

Colby did come up just short, losing 4-3 in the National Semifinal against eventual national champion St. Norbert College of Wisconsin, last Friday. But, the 2017-18 Colby Mules men’s hockey team had made an indelible mark in the history of its program.

For his efforts in the turnaround, Blaise MacDonald was named National Division III Coach of the Year. Before Colby, he coached for 12 seasons in Division I at Niagara University and UMass-Lowell. Before that, he was an Assistant Coach under Jack Parker at Boston University.

MacDonald, whom I’ve known since I was a student at UMaine during his early tenure at UML, told me that this season’s run is as personally fulfilling for him as getting Niagara, then a young DI program, a game away from the Frozen Four, and winning a national title with BU in 1995. This year was extra special, though, because two of his sons, Cam (a senior) and Joe (a First Year) were both on the team. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that all three will treasure forever. And an entire school, community, and state got to go along for a thrilling ride.

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