Loyola Marymount, WCHC face off 2021-22 college hockey season
The West Coast Hockey Conference (WCHC) remains largely intact following the COVID-19 shutdown, though it may take on a slightly different look to face off the 2021-22 season.
Four-time defending champion CSU-Northridge is in dormant status and another member may not field a team.
“CSUN won’t be able to play at the start of the season, but we hope they will be able to play later in the year,” Loyola Marymount University general manager Tyler Goeckner-Zoeller said. “In addition, it seems like the University of San Diego will not field a team this year. They were too senior-heavy their last season (2019-20) and the COVID year, they didn’t recruit kids still. It seems they will not have enough players.”
CSU-Northridge defeated LMU 4-2 in the championship game of the 2020 WCHC playoff tournament to win its fourth consecutive championship. LMU accepted its second runner-up finish in the history of the tournament after previously placing second in 2013.
The 2019-20 season was rewarding to both CSUN and LMU. However, like most American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) men’s Division II programs based on the West Coast, neither team was able to compete during the ensuing 2020-21 season because of the coronavirus shutdown. Thus, there was no 2021 WCHC tournament champion decided.
It appears there will be a 2022 WCHC champion crowned as teams ready their return to the rink for the 2021-22 season.
Just who will win the upcoming championship remains to be determined. Regardless of who wins, just being able to be back on the ice is a huge motivating force for players, coaches and college hockey fans.
“My thoughts on hockey starting back up is that its an amazing feeling,” Goeckner-Zoeller said. “It’s great to start practicing. But the first game, the butterflies of being on the ice, it’s easy to remember why we play.”
Northridge defeated Long Beach State to win the 2018 and 2019 WCHC championships after topping San Diego State University in 2017 to start its run of four consecutive conference titles.
Last season, the conference was divided into two tiers for competition purposes with five teams competing in Tier 1 and five teams competing in Tier 2. All Tier 1 teams qualified for the postseason tournament while two Tier 2 teams did so to create a seven-team playoff field.
USD won the regular-season Tier 2 championship while Chapman University also qualified along with Tier 1 members Fullerton State, Long Beach State, UC Santa Barbara, CSUN and LMU.
Tier 2 members also included CSU Bakersfield, UC Irvine and UC San Diego. Teams played eight games against their respective tier opponents to determine conference playoff seeding.
USD received the No. 6 seed and upset third-seeded Long Beach State, 4-3, behind a hat trick by Brett Roenick in the opening quarterfinals to produce the tournament’s upset win.
In other quarterfinals, fourth-seeded Fullerton State edged fifth-seeded UC Santa Barbara, 6-4, while second-seeded LMU shut out seventh-seeded Chapman 11-0.
The three quarterfinal winners joined top-seeded Northridge (which received a bye) in the semifinals. Both the Matadors and Lions won to advance to the championship final.
Northridge ended USD’s Cinderella season with an 11-2 victory while LMU tamed the Titans 5-2.
The Matadors finished undefeated in both regular season play and the conference championship tournament to cap the 2019-20 WCHC season. CSUN received the No. 11 seed for the ACHA II West Region tournament.
Forward Eli Berengut (Woodland Hills) ranks as the Matadors’ all-time scoring leader with 222 points (115 goals, 107 assists) in 131 games over five seasons with the team.
There has been movement between teams since the 2019-20 season ended. UC San Diego departed the conference to join the PAC-8 Conference while Cal Lutheran University has come on board to keep WCHC membership at 10 teams.
Eight teams seem ready to start the 2021-22 season: four in each tier.
The projected lineup for the 2021-22 season includes Tier 1 members LMU, Long Beach State, UC Santa Barbara, Fullerton and a currently dormant Northridge squad. Tier 2 members include UC Irvine, Cal Lutheran, Chapman and CSU Bakersfield.
It remains uncertain how any uptick in COVID-19 cases may affect the schedule.
Teams are expected to play each of their tier opponents twice before heading to the conference tournament Feb. 11-13 in Bakersfield.
“With the uncertainly around COVID and who can play, we plan to invite everyone who completed their conference schedule to the end-of-year tournament,” Goeckner-Zoeller said.
Like many teams, LMU lost a sizable number of seniors during the canceled 2020-21 season while teams were on hiatus. However, the Lions – 17-9-1 in their last completed season – return with a 26-player roster.
“We have a pretty heavy (current) senior roster, returning our leading scorers and starting goalie,” Goeckner-Zoeller said. “We have about 14 new players to us – freshmen and sophomores who we didn’t see last year. We have a good feeling about being a leader in the conference and hoping to make it back to regionals. As long as we can play, we’re very excited for the year!”
Center Austin Billings (San Jose) led the Lions in scoring in 2019-20 with 46 points (24 goals, 22 assists) in 26 games while center Brian Clem (Lake Forest) ranked second on the team with 34 points (21 goals, 13 assists) in 23 games. Jason Footlick (Redondo Beach) appeared in 20 games between the pipes with a 3.00 goals-against average and .908 save percentage.
Clem earned membership on the 2020 all-conference first team while Footlick was a second-team all-conference selection.
LMU is undertaking four out-of-state trips this season, including one each in Idaho, Michigan, Arizona and Utah.
“We wanted to have a really fun year after missing one,” Goeckner-Zoeller explained. “We are going to Boise for the first time in team history, and also heading out to Detroit to play a showcase with the University of Texas, BGSU (Bowling Green State University) and Central Michigan. The BGSU game will be an outdoor game. We also are doing our normal NAU (Northern Arizona University) and Utah Beehive showcase trips.”
The Lions defeated USC 14-2 in the opening game of their two-game Century Cup rivalry series Sept. 18 at the Skating Edge Ice Arena. Billings led the LMU scoring parade with seven points on three goals and four assists while fellow senior Ryan Hirai (San Jose) collected six points on three goals and three assists. Junior Christopher Manzer (Vacaville), senior Connor Kilkenny (Lone Tree, Colo.) and sophomore Spencer Engstrom (Branford, Conn.) each scored twice in support of goaltenders Footlick and sophomore Henry Lissner (San Jose).
The teams will conclude their two-game series Feb. 5 at Anaheim Ice with the Lions holding a 1-0 edge.
LMU is sure to stack up valuable rankings points after finishing with a pair of wins and an overtime loss (2-0-1) at the Boise Showcase. All three games, which were played within a span of 36 hours, ended with 4-3 scores and went into overtime. The Lions edged Weber State in OT in the event’s opener on Sept. 24 before falling in OT to host Boise State on Sept. 25. LMU closed out the Idaho event with a shootout win over Utah State on Sept. 26.
All three games against potential regional opponents served as a worthy early season test for the Lions.
LMU rallied from a 3-2 deficit against Weber State in the first game as Manzer scored with just six seconds to play in regulation with the goaltender pulled to send the game into overtime. Billings picked up his second goal of the game to net the game-winner in the extra frame. Billings and Hirai had given the Lions an early 2-1 lead in the contest.
LMU took a lead into the closing minutes of the middle game but Boise State tied the game in the final minute of the contest and then popped in the game-winner just 20 seconds into the overtime period in a reversal of fortune for the Lions.
LMU rallied from a 2-0 deficit against Utah State as freshman Connor Kaczmarek (Carpentersville, Ill.) and Hirai notched key goals to tie the game. Billings stepped up to the plate again to tie the game at 3-all to send the game into overtime and then a shootout. Footlick stopped all three shots he faced in the tiebreaker while Billings netted the game-winning shootout goal.
The Lions remained unbeaten through regulation play to start their opening four games of the new season.
Billings topped LMU with two game-winning goals in the Boise Showcase as the team continued to make a name for itself in the early stages of the new season.
“The Boise trip obviously was a big test for our team – early in the year playing so many games against perennial regionals teams,” Goeckner-Zoeller said. “The team is thrilled with our start and believe we got a real solid team. Obviously, Billings and Hirai are driving our offense, but freshman Connor Kaczmarek is a really solid player so early on.
“We have two tough NAU games coming up on Oct. 8-9 at home. We planned a tough schedule, playing five straight games against usual regional teams to start the year after USC, and we’re off to a great start.”
The Lions announced on Sept. 24 that head coach Jack Hyman had picked up his program-leading 32nd coaching win.
Chapman will face WCHC newcomer Cal Lutheran Oct. 2 in a game scheduled at the Simi Valley Iceoplex while UC Irvine will host Chapman at Great Park Ice & FivePoint Arena in Irvine on Oct. 8.
UC Santa Barbara faces off its WCHC schedule with a pair of road matchups Oct. 22 at Chapman and Oct. 23 at Fullerton.
— Phillip Brents
(September 28, 2021)