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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Florida men’s club hockey secures first national championship in history

The Gators won six consecutive games in the Amateur Athletic Union Championships

Florida Ice Hockey Club celebrates its first National Championship win on Wednesday, March, 13, 2024.
Florida Ice Hockey Club celebrates its first National Championship win on Wednesday, March, 13, 2024.

For a school where football is king, Florida hockey is not necessarily on the radar. At a southern school where football gamedays convert the entire campus into a massive orange and blue celebration, a successful hockey program isn’t expected, especially when the team must trek to Jacksonville to even get on the ice. 

However, within that team, there’s a sense of community and support, as well as success. Florida hockey overcame two tournament losses in January and February to record its first national championship in program history. 

Throughout those games, the Gators faced multiple northern teams whom they had no mutual opponents with, posing lots of uncertainty for the team’s fate in nationals.  

The Gators traveled to West Chester, Pennsylvania, to compete in the Amateur Athletic Union Division II Championships March 8-13, playing six consecutive games against Neumman, Anna Maria College, Mass Maritime Academy, Alabama-Huntsville, High Point and Florida Atlantic. 

The tournament did not come without its challenges. During the quarterfinal game against Alabama-Huntsville, the Gators trailed 4-1 going into the third period. 

“The energy was just not there,” assistant captain Parker Mara said. “We were just everywhere. Everybody was down and really didn't think that it was possible to come back.”

The team couldn't crack Alabama Huntsville’s talented goalie through two periods, unable to find the back of the net. 

The locker room was emotional, frustrated at not being able to get past the Huntsville netminder.

However, the team recollected itself, pulling its emotions together. 

A couple of minutes into the third period, Mara took the puck from Alabama-Huntsville, charging all the way down the ice. He passed to sophomore Zach Zelmanski, preparing to drive to the goal. When Zelmanski returned the puck to Mara, he headed straight for the goal, shooting the puck through the goalie’s grasp. 

“It simply was that very first goal and it just completely switched. It was like night and day,” junior defenseman and club president Matthew Brkljacic said.

It was the first of five straight goals for the Gators. Mara scored two of his three goals in the third period, propelling UF to the semifinal. 

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“Parker was just incredible in that game, not only scoring goals but playing physical, playing well defensively, keeping his teammates motivated,” head coach Frank Pasquale said. “He was exceptional in that game.” 

In addition to Mara, freshman Michael McCoy had an incredible performance in the tournament. He led the team and the entire tournament in scoring. However, he wasn’t as impactful in the Fall, Pasquale said. McCoy sustained a serious injury in the Fall, causing him to miss time and slow him down.

Prior to the national tournament, Florida fell short in the Savannah Hockey Classic and the College Hockey South Division II conference tournament earlier in its season. The Gators won the Savannah tournament in the 2022 and 2023 seasons and were looking to earn a third consecutive title. However, they lost against arch-rival Georgia in the finals. 

Then, they placed fifth in the Southern Conference tournament, losing 5-4 in overtime against Clemson. They blew a 3-0 lead. 

“We were caught off guard,” Brkljacic said. “I don't think we took them seriously enough. And they proved it in that game. In that locker room after the game, morale was really low because we had nothing to show for this season.” 

Heading into the national tournament, the team was fueled with a sense of redemption and was eager to get out onto the ice. 

However, the team was unsure about playing the Northern teams, unable to gauge how the round-robin games would pan out. 

Florida shut out Neumann University in its first game 7-0. 

And as the tournament went on, the energy would get more intense, Mara said.

In the final game of the tournament, Florida earned its national title. 

The championship game against in-state rival Florida Atlantic went back-and-forth since puck drop. At the end of the second period, Florida led 5-3. Either team had a shot. 

With only a couple minutes left in the third period and Florida leading 7-4, Florida Atlantic coughed up the puck to junior Quinn Shepard who passed to freshman Kegan Lampinen, snapping the puck into the empty net. The team, now with a four-goal lead, began to sense the victory, smiling ear-to-ear.

When the final buzzer went off, it was pure joy and excitement. 

The five on the ice threw their sticks, gloves and helmets with exhilaration while the rest of the team hopped over the bench onto the ice, dog piling and celebrating their first national championship in program history.

“One of the coolest things I've ever seen and something that I will always remember,” Mara said. 

Florida closed out its season March 24 in the SEC Tournament, where the team beat South Carolina 6-5 in the championship game. 

Even though Pasquale said the team is losing key players, a freshman goalie and high-performing freshman defenseman and forwards make the future look promising. 

Mara is one of the players leaving after the season. He graduates in the Spring, but he said he spent his best years playing hockey for UF.

“These were some of the best years of my life playing hockey,” he said. “Talking about what we won this year will always be something that we can do for the rest of our lives.”

Contact Shaine Davison at sdavison@alligator.org. Follow her on X @shainedavison.

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