Hofstra‚??s Roller Hockey Team
This is a neat story from ECRHA.net. Thanks, Rebecca, for sending it along to me.
A Rarefied Air
Hofstra‚??s roller hockey team climbs to lofty heights, reaching Elite Eight of Division II National Tournament in Colorado.
by Ralph T. Pollio
They came from Malverne and Merrick and Massachusetts, these young men, and they took Horace Greeley's advice: They went west. Went to play hockey, to play for a national championship. They didn't win -- not all their games, anyway. But that's really not what this story's about.
The Hofstra roller hockey team did win enough games during the regular season to get a mid-April invite to the Big Dance in Fort Collins, Colorado -- to play in the 2005 Division II College Roller Hockey National Tournament. And it beat some of the best teams in the country to get there. Beat them in a way just-turned men who kick around a puck in the name of their alma mater had never done before.
Three Top Ten teams fell -- including one, Neumann College, which had been undefeated and #1-ranked -- in ten hours. All in overtime. That sent rumblings through hockey locker rooms from Bangor down to Miami and across to Reno. Everybody was talking about the unlikely Regional Champs -- the little-known team with the big heart and the swift skates that hailed from . . .
"Where‚??re they from?" They had asked in Feasterville during the Regionals; they asked again in Fort Collins at the Nationals. Everybody wanted to know where this team had come from - this one-time Wanna-be who was suddenly boasting ‚??Wanna-try-to-beat-me!‚?Ě?
By the time the Long Islanders had upended Atlantic Coast Champ Elon University, 7-4, and 10th-ranked University of Louisiana at Lafayette, 9-3, in the round robin bracket of the Nationals at OD‚??s Sports Crossing in mountain-rich Fort Collins, there was no doubt where this team was from. The only question was where it was going. When Atlanta‚??s Emory University eked out a 6-4 victory over Hofstra in the third and final round robin rumble, it was the Pride‚??s first post-season loss in eight games ‚?? seven against teams ranked in the Top Twelve in the college hockey world.
The three round robin games helped slot the sixteen seeds for the tournament‚??s single-elimination rounds.
Cinderella. Giant Killers. Comeback Kids. While the press played with platitudes, these Easterners were playing for love of a game and their school. Pure as the snow that blanketed Bear Lake.
When the final buzzer signaled yet another bet-you-thought-you-had-us Pride comeback in the opening round of the loser-go-home portion of the tournament ‚?? with Hofstra scoring twice in the closing three minutes to win, 7-6, against 3rd-ranked, defending national champs, Missouri-St. Louis -- it marked the second time (Neumann was the first) in a month that this young hockey program had knocked off a defending champion. College hockey‚??s Grand Prize was now three wins away.
Now fans who had filled the stands in this Denver suburb knew they had done the right thing by not heading for the hills ‚?? after all, one could climb to the top of Longs Peak anytime. They knew that watching this Hofstra team was going to be a different kind of Rocky Mountain high.
The Pride‚??s eagerly awaited rematch with #1-seed Neumann didn‚??t disappoint. Hofstra scored two quick unanswered goals, Neumann retaliated ‚?? and, even if you hadn‚??t seen the Feasterville firestorm, man, you just knew what was in store for you.
Once in a great while, a hockey game is so dramatic, and the players so courageous, that the event transcends the sport. The action leaps to a higher, almost mythical plane.
That was the case with these teams in Feasterville. And it was again the case in Colorado ‚?? with one big difference: When the dust cleared this time, Neumann was the one standing (7-6). Two games, two classics -- twenty-eight goals scored: fourteen for Neumann, fourteen for Hofstra.
Truth be known, Hofstra led much of the way in Colorado; even had a man advantage at the end. You waited for the magic ‚?? one more goal -- but it never came. Very close was as close as the Pride‚??s pucks would get in the ensuing late-game frenzy.
There was the usual ‚??What ifs‚?Ě one gets used to hearing after a game of this magnitude.
What if Neumann hadn‚??t seized an unfair advantage when big-game player, Dino Virone, was roughed up on the boards and re-injured his right arm? And what if 13th-ranked Wentworth hadn‚??t leapfrogged six spots over 7-ranked Hofstra, because in round robin action, the Leopards had won two and tied one, while the Pride had won two and just missed tying one.
Rebecca Brietel, president of the Eastern Collegiate Roller Hockey Association, stopped me after the Selection Committee had met. ‚??I‚??m sorry about the seedings, she said.‚?Ě Everybody in Fort Collins had been salivating over the prospect of a Hofstra-Neumann Feasterville-like finale.
‚??No excuses,‚?Ě insisted Hofstra‚??s captain, A. J. Frey. "They're a very good team and it was a great game."
The Elite Eight -- that's how far the Pride got. Not bad, but that‚??s the other story. This story's more about the Elite Thirteen -- and they play for Hofstra. Sounds corny, I know. But I watched these guys for three years. Watched them turn a dream into a contender.
Before Hofstra's showdown with Neumann in the Eastern Regionals, back in March, I had asked Breitel what she thought of the fast-improving Pride's chances.
"I'd rather not say," she said. In other words, you might want to bet the farm on Neumann.
After that game, Neumann's respected head coach explained: "Hofstra was the only team we played all year who took its game to Neumann. Other teams tried to play their game but Neumann adapted and, ultimately, they ended up playing Neumann's game."
Kudos to the young Pride and its coach. Coach? Oh, yea, Hofstra doesn't have one.
Didn‚??t stop them, though, from developing and executing that trademarked style the Knights‚?? coach alluded to ‚?? an offensive stratagem as innovative as any unveiled by a coach this year: A slow-down, stop-the-game, patiently-await-the-opponent‚??s-countermove gambit ‚?? the Pride played chess, not checkers; oh, how it agitated Top 5 powerhouses Maine, Missouri and Neumann. Hofstra lulled them to sleep then attacked with a fury. A dichotomy of tempo that flummoxed and frustrated.
While the Pride didn‚??t have a coach, it did have a leader ‚?? Capable Captain A. J. He's the guy who first had the dream. A big idea but little money. A club roller hockey team. ‚??Club‚?Ě as in sacrifice ‚?? the out of pocket kind, for one.
Sure, the university contributes. But this is not varsity. And it‚??s expensive. Hotels. Food. Car fare, air fare, tolls, equipment. . . .
The Pride was banished to limbo in its fledgling season ‚?? as the new kid on the rink, it had to play in the Affiliate Division; ended up winning the championship, but that division‚??s eligibility rules denied it the joy of playing in the Nationals. Hofstra‚??s success convinced the school to keep things going ‚?? to fork over some more bucks. A successful sophomore season meant even more dough.
‚??I can‚??t believe this is a club team ‚?? no scholarships,‚?Ě exclaimed an amazed Linda Church, during a Channel 11 spot about the Pride that aired live less than twenty-four hours after the club returned from Colorado.
A segment about young men in love with a game. There they were, decked out in full gear, taking shots, skating hard ‚?? at 6 a.m.; 4 a.m. for someone in Colorado or someone just back from Colorado. You didn‚??t have to see the telecast to get the picture.
Or to understand the team‚??s commitment ‚?? the kind that often took it to far-off places for practices and scrimmages -- driving their own cars, hauling their oversized gear bags, into the wee small weekday hours, then getting up for classes the next day.
Yet another kind of sacrifice is perhaps best understood by men who live in college dorms and live to party. It‚??s a unique kind of discipline that motivates twenty-year olds to eschew Colorado's cool clubs and hot nights to grab a precious few hours sleep between late-night and early-morning face-offs.
After Neumann exacted revenge on the Pride to catapult into the National Final Four, I asked Virone, who had taken a hard hit midway through the game and was grabbing at his arm afterwards, if the hit affected his play. I had no doubt it had, but Virone denied it. When pressed, he admitted ‚??I really couldn‚??t get off much of a shot,‚?Ě quickly adding, ‚??but did you see the way the rest of the team picked me up!‚?Ě It‚??s hard to find fault with Virone‚??s play; even harder with his modesty.
Yes, it was a talented ensemble that picked up Virone but, hell, this guy was hot -- averaging almost three goals a game in the tourney. It don‚??t take no genius. . . .
One Neumann player stopped Hofstra's Chris Pollio after the game: "You guys are the best," he enthused. "Nobody all year played us the way you did -- twice. You walked through your division the way we did, didn't you (Neumann had won 29 of 31, losing to one other team besides Hofstra)?" Pollio paused before confessing, "Not really." In fact Hofstra hadn‚??t even finished first in its division.
‚??We kept reading message boards claiming we were not much of a team,‚?Ě bristled Frey just before the Regionals, ‚??and that the only reason we had a good record is because we played an easy schedule during the year.‚?Ě
No one remembered that. No one remembered that the Pride's goal was merely to get their ticket stamped for a trip to Fort Collins. This Hofstra team made it so easy to forget ‚?? first in Feasterville, then in Fort Collins. In the end, the team that had so quickly moved from #16 to #7 in the Division II hockey world hungered for more. Much more. A #1 ranking and a national championship was its new goal. And the Pride made you believe their dream.
One neutral fan, checking out the results board, offered some perspective, ‚??Whoa, Hofstra only won by one!‚?Ě Apparently, that the Pride‚??s opponent had been 3rd-ranked Missouri-St. Louis, the Division II defending champs, didn‚??t diminish his expectations.
"Any one of three teams could have won this thing on a given night," a Neumann fan comforted a Hofstra player after the game. "You guys are really something else."
And that, of course, is precisely what this story is about.
Ralph T. Pollio was the founder and editor of Eastern Basketball Magazine and EB News, and is currently the Managing Editor of the Harman Consumer Group.
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