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SDSU Aztecs face off 2017-18 season with 10-0-1 start

 

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San Diego State University’s men’s ice hockey team is off to its best start since joining the Division 2 tier in the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA), a national organization governing non-varsity college ice hockey teams.

The Aztecs swept the University of Southern California in a pair of home and home games the weekend of Oct. 27-28 to extend their unbeaten start to the 2017-18 season to 10-0-1.

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SDSU was won 10 of its 11 games in regulation play; the team’s lone loss was in a shootout to visiting Grand Canyon University on Oct. 8 after the teams had skated to a 2-2 tie.

“It’s pretty fun, we’ve got a lot of good new talent,” Aztec junior winger Aaron Mayer said in regard to the team’s undefeated start. “We’re hoping to improve and get better. We should see some good things, maybe some national championships, hopefully.”

Mayer led SDSU in regular season scoring last season with 41 points (19 goals, 22 assists) in 25 games and has been piling up points once again this season.

“We have a motto that we’ve put in this year and everyone has followed it — work before skill,” graduate student Anthony Mata said. “It’s resulted in more teamwork, we’re moving the puck; we’re not holding it. There’s no individual work that you sometimes see. We’re trusting each other a lot more; we’re just working hard.”

A mass infusion of new players has helped create a new team dynamic on the Aztec team this season.

“The team this year is a very young talented team,” SDSU head coach Phil Bateman explained. “We have added 10 freshman/new players to the roster from last season’s team.

“They have helped contribute to our great start.”

Newcomers include forwards Tristan Macalooloy, Patrick Meier, Steven Plante, Reece Breukman and defensemen Tyler Smith, Griffin Holland and Derek Bell.

“They all come with a great hockey pedigree and, in Derek’s case, he is a grad student who was a four-year offensive lineman at Michigan University,” Bateman said. “Our returners are the core of the team.”

Besides Mayer, other top returners include forwards Hayden Bolls, Patrick Miller, Mata and Isaac Miller, defenseman Joshua Norbida and goaltender Austin Hathcoat.

Plante, Meier and Patrick Miller have already embedded themselves among the team’s scoring leaders.

Bolls paced the team in scoring with 20 points in 10 games while Mayer and Plante followed with 16 points in the same number of contests.

The Aztecs have won both by blowout margin (four games by five or more goals) and in nail-biting fashion (five games by a margin of two goals or less).

Hathcoat has been solid between the pipes with a 9-0-0 record, 2.60 goals-against average and .882 save percentage in 10 game appearances.

“It’s a lot more up-tempo,” Mayer assessed of the team’s dynamic this season. “Basically, everyone can play. We always have a line that can score and get things done. It’s a team sport; we need everyone to play.”

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Keeping to the team’s motto has helped bring success, Bateman reiterated.

“We just put in a motto in early — work before skill,” Phil Bateman said. “The skill was always going to be there. These guys have adopted that and, for the most part, they’re going out every night and working.

“Sometimes, with a very young team, with 10 freshmen, there is a maturation that has to happen but, for the most part, they are buying in. It’s a 10-0-1 start, the best since we’ve been a Division 2 team.”

“We just have to hard work and stay kind of humble, work as a team and not as individuals,” Mayer said when asked what the team needs to do to maintain its strong start.

SDSU received a test in its 5-4 win over USC in a game played Oct. 28 at the Poway Ice Arena. The Aztecs built a 4-1 lead in the contest after winning by a blowout margin the previous evening in Anaheim. However, the Trojans reeled off three unanswered goals to tie the game, 4-4, in the third period.

After failing to capitalize on two power plays in the final stanza, sophomore Isaac Miller scored an even-strength goal with 6:57 remaining in the matchup of Southern California rivals to stand up as the game-winner to record the weekend sweep and remain unbeaten in regulation.

SDSU received points from nine players and goals from four players, including a pair from Macalolooy.

Jack D’Anna led USC in scoring with two goals while teammate Drew McGrane had two assists.

Mata, Mayer and Isaac Miller all have strong roller hockey backgrounds. Mayer is the all-time single season scoring leader in the history of the CIF-Metro Conference, recording 177 points during the 2014-15 season. Mata won Kiwanis Cup championships in the CIF-Metro Conference in 2008-09 and 2009-10 with Westview High School.

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Miller, a 2016 graduate of Helix High School, played for the San Diego Tron Hosers during the 2014-15 American Inline Hockey League (AIHL) season, finishing second in team scoring on the Hosers Blue Minor Division team with 15 goals and seven assists for 22 points in 24 regular season games. He scored one goal in two playoff games.

Miller was an instant contributor as a freshman with 15 goals and nine assists for 24 points in 22 games last season. He scored four power play goals, one short-handed goal, accumulated 34 minutes in penalties (most on the team) and notched three game-winning goals.

He entered the weekend set against USC with three goals and three assists this season.

With flowing locks protruding from beneath his helmet, he’s the easiest player to spot on the ice.

“It’s definitely a lot more physical than roller hockey,” Miller summed up about playing full-contact ice hockey. “You’ve got to throw your body around more, definitely keep your head up a lot more. But playing roller hockey definitely helps with stickhandling and stuff like that.

“The strong point of the Aztec team this year is that we all get along, we’re cohesive. We all want to win, so we have one goal in mind and I think we’re going to get it.”

Winter wars

The 2018 ACHA national championship tournament is scheduled March 9-13 in Columbus, Ohio. Four teams from the West region will participate in the 16-team event.

The top 12 ranked teams from the West region will qualify for postseason play.

The top two ranked teams in the West region receive a bye to the national tournament. Teams ranked third through 12th will compete in a regional tournament Feb. 22-25 at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, to determine the next two qualifiers.

The first regional rankings are due out in November. Bateman feels his team should score a high mark in the rankings if it can remain undefeated.

The Aztecs play four road games — Nov. 3 against Santa Rosa Junior College, Nov. 4 against San Jose State University, Nov. 5, against Weber State University and Nov. 11 game against Loyola Marymount University — before returning home to play Long Beach State Nov. 18 at the Poway Ice Arena.

The Aztecs are set to make history locally by playing in an outdoor game on Dec. 18 as part of the Frozen Fairgrounds at the Del Mar Fairgrounds holiday event. SDSU is scheduled to play Long Beach State. Face off is 8:15 p.m.

The Del Mar Arena seats approximately 3,000. SDSU has been drawing 300 to 500 fans to games at its current home arena in Poway.

“The college game is going to be the centerpiece (of the event),” Bateman said.

Golden State Ice Sports (GS Ice Sports) and International Hockey Events (IHE), California-based specialized ice hockey production companies, will host Frozen Fairgrounds, which will be open to the public from Dec. 15-31.

Frozen Fairgrounds will feature two ice rinks, including a 7,200-square-foot community ice rink and an NHL-regulation size ice hockey rink, the first ever NHL-sized ice rink to be installed outdoors in San Diego County.

The San Diego Gulls of the American Hockey League (AHL) will hold an outdoor practice Dec. 18 at 10 a.m. Besides the Gulls practice and college game, the event will also spotlight youth and adult hockey tournaments on the ice.

The Aztecs’ regular season schedule extends through the first weekend in February. Upcoming opponents, besides Long Beach State, include the University of Texas-El Paso (Jan. 12-13) and Northern Arizona University (Feb. 2-3).

Other California-based Division 2 ACHA teams with strong starts to the 2017-18 season include Cal-Berkeley (8-2-0), Long Beach State (5-2-0), UCLA (4-2-0), Loyola Marymount (6-5-0), Cal State Fullerton (4-4-1) and Santa Clara University (3-1-0).

Northern Arizona University is off to an 8-1-0 start.

Arizona State University is currently the only NCAA Division I program west of the Rockies.

Photos/Eric J. Fowler

— Phillip Brents

(Nov. 1, 2017)