ROLLER HOCKEY HUB
The NCRHA Division II Championship Game was everything roller hockey fans could ask for.
An unexpected matchup between two very different teams from opposite ends of the country pitted two teams that, despite their differences, had similar paths to get to the final round. Both CSU Fullerton and the University of Tennessee pulled out one-goal wins over conference rivals in the Elite Eight, and then won one-goal thrillers with less than 10 seconds left in the Final Four.
When it was all said and done, the two teams remaining were the Titans and the Vols.
The matchup pitted the Titans of CSU Fullerton – a team with a solid goaltender in Ron Best, offensive depth and a controlled, possession-style of play -- against the Vols of Tennessee, another team with a strong backstop in Daniel Falls, a tandem for offensive firepower and a quicker, high-tempo style of play. The “Tennessee Tandem,” arguably the best offensive duo in the nation in Michael Curtis and Jack Mali, led Division II pool play in scoring.
There was one more storyline, as two men, CSU Fullerton's Head Coach, Matt Han, and Senior, Kiefer Lupascu, had something else riding on this game: a chance for redemption in Fort Myers.
Just 4 years prior, Han and Lupascu were playing together for the Titans, a first-year team making their own National Championship run at the Skatium. That year's CSU Fullerton team would fall victim to the eventual winners, University of Colorado - Colorado Springs, in a five-period Double OT thriller in the Elite Eight. The following year, CSU Fullerton would go on to win the 2014 Division II National Championship, but that first run in Fort Myers meant a lot to Han, Lupascu, and the rest of the Titans -- a team falling just short of greatness in their inaugural season. Fast forward to the present -- with Han behind the bench and Lupascu playing in his last tournament as a Titan, the duo had their eyes set on leading their group to victory yet again.
Both teams played smart from the opening puck drop, controlling possession evenly and cautiously taking chances when they presented themselves. One such chance by Tennessee forced Fullerton's Kiefer Lupascu to make a diving effort to break up a 2-on-1 rush, an effort that tripped up Dylan Grizzell in the process. Fullerton kept Tennessee off the board on their man advantage, thanks in part to a miraculous cross-crease backdoor save by goaltender Ron Best, but Tennessee's Jack Mali would still make the Titans pay as they returned to even strength. Mali picked up a pass in his own end, wheeled down the left wing, beat two defensemen, circled around the net and roofed one short side over the glove of Best for the first goal of the game. Mali's marker ended up holding as the only goal scored in the first period, and the Vols led 1-0.
Fullerton came out firing on all cylinders to start the 2nd period. It took less than two minutes for Brandon Olinger to take advantage of a 2-on-1 rush, ripping one past Falls to knot the game at 1. This marked a turning point in the game: Fullerton took advantage of the few sloppy turnovers Tennessee made. One of those turnovers, an errant offensive zone drop-pass, allowed Yano a scoring chance, who would sneak a shot past the blocker of Falls to give the Titans a 2-1 lead with 8:25 remaining in the 2nd period.
Answering just a half minute later was the tandem of Michael Curtis and Jack Mali.
With Fullerton on the offensive, Mali made a good defensive play to break up the rush, picked up the puck, dished it to Curtis down the floor, and streaked towards
the net. Curtis caught the pass, danced around Fullerton defenseman Greg Dodsworth before saucing a backhand pass under a Fullerton defenseman's stick to Mali on the back door, who tied the game at 2 despite the small space given to him by the Fullerton goaltender Best. The minutes that followed were evenly matched, with both teams opting to trade chances in lieu of waiting for a better opportunity. With 1:04 remaining in the period Tennessee’s Jimmy Curtis went to the box for interference, giving Fullerton a man advantage and a chance to take the lead.
The trio of Michael Curtis, Reed Davis and Austin Gomez would assist Daniel Falls by limiting the quality and quantity of Fullerton’s man advantage attempts, and the period ended with the score still tied, 2-2.
The 3rd period started with Fullerton still on the power play for just under a minute, yet the Vols penalty kill efforts continued to limit the Titans' chances. As the penalty clock expired, Troy Yano’s shot missed the net. Both #4’s on the floor – Fullerton’s Ricky May and Tennessee’s Reed Davis – battled to get to Yano’s missed attempt. It was a diving May who would get there first and whack the puck back to Yano, who fired a rocket from the point that took a bounce and ended up behind the Tennessee goaltender Falls to give Fullerton the 3-2 lead a minute into the 3rd.
Shortly after the Fullerton goal, Michael Curtis got a breakaway with a chance to tie it for the Vols, and despite tangling up Ron Best and finding an opening, slid it back into the goaltender. After this, you could hear Fullerton Head Coach Matt Han emphasizing a puck possession game and a receptive Titans team changed their pace, turning back until the right opportunity presented itself. Seconds later, it finally did, as James Lovberg and Cayman Elkin worked a give-and-go, with Lovberg firing a wrist shot from the top of the right circle over the blocker of Falls. The goal gave Fullerton a 4-2 lead with 7:25 remaining in the 3rd period, and in an attempt to regroup, Tennessee called their time out.
After the timeout, the Vols came out firing, and soon enough, Mali tried to slip a pass backdoor to a wide open Curtis, but the puck couldn’t find its way through. Fullerton’s James Lovberg intercepted the pass and quickly moved the puck ahead to Brandon Olinger, who drove up the right side and around a Tennessee defender before sneaking a shot under the glove of Falls to give Fullerton a 5-2 lead with 5:47 remaining. Despite Tennessee's efforts, there just wasn’t enough fuel left in the tank or time left on the clock for the Vols to climb back. The Titans would add one more power play goal in the closing minutes, this time from Kyle Alexander, to make it 6-2.
As the game clock winded down, CSU Fullerton fans, parents, and their entire Division III team could be heard cheering and chanting, celebrating the inevitable. On the bench, Fullerton’s entire team banded together, arms linked on each others’ shoulders, until finally, the horn sounded, and the ensuing dogpile took place.
Notes and Quotes:
"We went down by at least a goal in each of our playoff games," said Head Coach, Matt Han. "Trailing 4-1 to Kansas State after the first period, and overcoming that deficit in an early playoff round... we weren't about to lie down and call it quits from then on out, no matter what challenges lied ahead."
Another thing Han noted was that the team played all week without leading scorer, Anthony Squirek, who was recovering from a concussion.
CSU Fullerton's experiences from the past and veteran leadership was a driving factor in their success.
Senior, Cayman Elkin: "We had that thought (of losing in Iowa last year) in the back of our minds this whole season. We knew how bad it felt to lose and we never wanted that feeling again. Most of our team are graduating seniors -- with that in mind, many of us knew that every single playoff game, we could be playing our last collegiate roller hockey game. That kind of pressure and motivation helped us find some extra energy and willpower to keep going... and that's what we did. We found a way to win in every situation."
Congratulations to the Cal State University Fullerton Titans, the 2017 NCRHA Division II National Champions!