When the world changed almost two months ago because of the coronavirus pandemic, historic winter sports seasons were cut short by postseason tournament cancellations. It just so happens that one of those abbreviated historic seasons happened in Middletown: just days before sports shut down, the Wesleyan Men’s Hockey team captured their first-ever NESCAC Championship in Williamstown, MA by upsetting Trinity in the championship game. Prior to the championship game, the fifth-seeded Cards ran the table by taking victories over fourth-seeded Middlebury and second-seeded Williams. Heading into the tournament, the Cards ended the regular season with two strong performances against Trinity, one that ended in a win and one that ended in loss.
Facing Middlebury on the road, the Cardinals continued their stout play as they won by a score of 4–2. Fighting against the Panthers, the Red and Black got on the board first, as Cam Peritz ’21 scored with just under a minute remaining in the first period. However, Middlebury responded with two goals of their own in the second to take a 2–1 lead. In the third, Wesleyan dominated the period on the scoreboard, scoring three goals to clinch a fourth straight NESCAC semifinal berth. Jordan Rose ’21, Hunter Vannier ’20, and Emmet Powell ’23 tallied the goals for the Cards, with Vannier scoring the game-winner. In goal, Tim Sestak ’20 made 21 saves in the victory.
Following the quarterfinal win, the Cards traveled to Williamstown to take on ninth-ranked and top-seeded Williams in the semifinals. There, they were able to take care of the Ephs in dramatic fashion, winning 3–2 in overtime on the Ephs’ own ice. As in the game against Middlebury, the Red and Black struck first, as Tyler Kobryn ’20 scored with just over two minutes to go in the first period. Kobryn then added a second goal near the end of the second to give Wesleyan a two goal advantage heading into the third period. However, Williams stormed back, scoring two goals in the final five minutes, including an equalizer with under a minute left to send the game into overtime. In OT, Williams came out firing before the Cards regrouped and were able to score the game-winning goal, as Jake Lachance ’20 buried the puck in the net to send the Red and Black to the NESCAC title game for the first time ever. Sestak was heroic in goal, making 40 saves and preserving the tie game in overtime when the Ephs had all the momentum.
In the championship game, the Cards took on eighth-ranked and second-seeded Trinity, with whom they had split the season series and had lost a tight matchup with in their last meeting. This game was a different story altogether, as the Cards dominated the Bantams en route to winning their first-ever NESCAC title by a score of 7–2. Unlike in the previous games, Trinity got on the board first to take a 1–0 lead that lasted the entire first period. However, the tables turned in the second, as Wesleyan dominated the period with three goals to take a 3–1 lead into the third leg of the game. Captain Spencer Fox ’20, Rose, and Tyler Levine ’22 each tallied one goal apiece in the period. In the third, Wesleyan’s dominance continued, as Levine scored just nine seconds after the starting horn to push the Cards’ lead to 4–1. Trinity got one back before Wiggle Kerbrat ’23 scored to restore the three-goal lead. Later in the third, the Red and Black added two more as Quincy Gregg ’20 and Walker Harris ’20 added empty-net goals to clinch the championship in resounding fashion. In net, Sestak made 38 saves to keep the Bantams at bay.
Fox was ecstatic to have finally won a NESCAC title after coming up short in previous years.
“It’s extremely special to help win the program’s first-ever NESCAC Championship.” Fox said. “It was all very surreal in the moment, and looking back at it, so many things fell into their place at the right time and so many obstacles needed to be overcome. Throughout my time at Wesleyan, I’ve been a part of some very good hockey teams that weren’t able to get over the hump. You need to write a perfect script to win the NESCAC, and I’m extremely elated and proud we were able to do exactly that.”
Fox said that he was pleased with how the team was finally able to find its footing on the big stage.
“If there’s anything we learned during the regular season, it was how to be resilient and how to deal with adversity,” Fox said. “In the semi-final game against Williams, we played a near-perfect 55 minutes of hockey and led 2-0 with five minutes to go. Williams cut the lead in half and then tied it up with 30 seconds left in front of their huge home crowd. We regrouped before OT by drawing on the adversity we already faced and the experience from last year’s devastating 2OT semi-final loss. One of our goals from the beginning of the year was to earn a chance to redeem ourselves from last year’s loss—and there we were in the exact same position one year later. Even though we’d just given up a late lead, there was no doubt we knew we were winning that game.”
As for the championship game against Trinity, Fox said their execution shined through, allowing them to rebound with a dominating performance after initially falling behind.
“We almost played like we were scared to lose rather than playing to win,” Fox said. “It may sound odd, but Trinity scoring the first goal really settled us and we started to play the right way after that. From there, without a doubt, the biggest key to winning the championship game was our execution,” Fox said. “We were generating lots of scoring opportunities and taking advantage of them better than we had all year. I also think how we scored our goals was very important; perfect passing plays and beautiful shots in short succession seemed to increase our confidence and destroy Trinity’s. Because of this, the game was over even before the score got out of hand.”
The exhilarating title run also clinched Wesleyan’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. In the first round, they were slated to take on Babson College on the road. However, just a couple days before the game, everything changed due to the pandemic, and the tournament (like everything else in sports) was canceled.
Fox was understandably disappointed by the situation, but remained grateful for the experience he shared with his teammates.
“It’s obviously disappointing that the NCAA tournament was canceled, but we’re very fortunate and grateful we had the opportunity to play for a NESCAC Championship and share a few days together as a team-leading up to the school closure and travel bans. Not many students were able to say goodbye to their friends because the school was on Spring Break when they announced the closure,” said Fox.
Despite the disappointment of not being able to play in the tournament, this was a historic season for the Cards, and they were able to finish the season on top despite regular season struggles at times.
“When I look back on this season, I’ll remember the adversity we faced day-in and day-out that prepared us for our special run,” Fox said. “We underperformed during the regular season and knew we were much better than our record indicated. We survived a stretch when we lost one of our top players to a major injury, we struggled with inconsistency all year, and it seemed like we were destined to be eliminated in the NESCAC semifinals for the fourth year in a row.
But come playoffs, everything clicked. We had multiple players step up in big moments when we needed them, and that pushed us over the top. It was even sweeter that we destroyed our arch-rival Trinity in the finals, a team that’s haunted us for the last few years. And although we weren’t able to play in the NCAA tournament, we went out on top—and that’s something special to hang your hat on.”
David Gottlieb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.