SDSU, USD make statement with record-breaking seasons
ACHA hockey is alive and well in the San Diego region as evidenced by record-breaking seasons turned in by both the San Diego State University Aztecs and the University of San Diego Toreros in 2019-20.
The Aztecs posted their first 20-win season in the program’s multi-decade history while the Toreros won the West Coast Hockey Conference’s (WCHC) Tier 2 regular-season championship, setting a school record for wins along the way.
The 20 wins are a program first, according to an obviously proud SDSU head coach Phil Bateman.
“It’s a tremendous team achievement, reaching the mantle of 20 wins has never been done by any Aztec hockey team in our long history,” he said. “The guys take a lot of pride in that.”
The Toreros reached a milestone of their own with 10 wins in their their second season after finishing 10-9 overall with a history-making trip to the WCHC championship tournament semifinals. It was a major step forward for the program, which posted a 1-13 showing in its start-up season in 2018-19.
Red and Black
SDSU finished with a final 20-10-0-1 record, ending its season with a gritty 3-1 loss to 12th-ranked Boise State in the quarterfinal round of the Pac-8 championship tournament (Feb. 7-9) in South Lake Tahoe.
There was room for more.
The Aztecs carried a 19-4-0-1 record into the 2020 calendar year. However, a spate of untimely injuries and semester departures wrecked havoc on the team’s record with a 1-6 showing in its final seven regular season games.
SDSU lost the services of four of its top six scorers during that time frame, including three of its top four point-scorers. The team lost a a total of 73 goals and 185 points in the talent drain.
“The timing was unfortunate,” Bateman said. “We lost one-and-a-half of our top two lines. When you lose that much, it’s a different game. It was so heart-breaking for these guys. They did their best.”
Center Artem Klein, playing a semester on an exchange visit from the University of Mannheim, returned to Germany prior to the Christmas break. His 61 points led the entire ACHA Division II at the time of his departure.
Sophomore Derian Theberge (second in team scoring) and freshman Ian Stentz (third in team scoring) both suffered late season injuries while fifth-year senior Aaron Mayer (fifth in team scoring, pictured) graduated at the semester break.
After returning from the holiday break, an untimely bout with the flu nailed the coffin door shut on a run at the Pac-8 South Division championship title.
SDSU finished third in the South Division standings with an 8-5-1 conference record behind the Cal-Berkeley Golden Bears (11-3-0 in first place) and the Arizona State University Sun Devils (10-2-2 in second place).
Boise State University, the second place finisher in the North Division, never trailed in the playoff game against the Aztecs. Goals by Sven Marnausz and Eric Pinskey offset an early equalizing tally by SDSU’s Evan Kordovi. Pinsky later added a goal in the second period to give the Broncos (21-13-1-2) a two-goal lead.
There was no scoring in the third period as the short-benched Aztecs, who were out-shot 46-28, were unable to make a comeback.
“The PAC championship weekend sadly was an extension of our end of the year slide,” Bateman said. “Lacking the right bodies caused an early exit from the tournament. The boys played exceptionally well but we could not just overcome Boise State.”
The Broncos defeated the Golden Bears by a score of 4-1 in the semifinals to advance to meet the fifth-ranked University of Oregon in the tournament championship game. The Ducks (22-5-0-1) won their second consecutive conference title with a 3-0 win.
Despite the disappointing ending to the season, the Aztecs did reap some postseason awards. Theberge (Santa Clarita) and freshman Michael Pellegrino (Ladera Ranch) were both named to the All-Pac Second Team while freshman Blake Reed (Aliso Viejo) earned selection to the all-conference third team.
Theberge racked up 23 goals and 45 points while Reed matched Theberge’s team-leading 23 goals. Pellegrino tied for fifth on the team with 12 goals and 29 points.
Pellegrino and Reed both played for JSerra High School in the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League.
Though Klein did not receive any honors, he recalled his semester abroad playing collegiate ice hockey in the United States a memorable journey.
“It was exciting to play on that level,” he said. “When I started studying in Germany, I was always looking forward to my exchange semester because I wanted to play college hockey. It was a great experience and I enjoyed every practice and game because of the people I met in San Diego.
“I played senior hockey last year in Germany, so there was a big difference to college hockey. But it didn’t take me a long time to get used to the smaller rink and different style of play. And I think our team had great guys. We enjoyed being together and had a nice mix of different characters. It was cool for me being the oldest on the team and to lead that group on and off the ice.”
Mayer helped provide the face of the SDSU hockey program across five seasons. He led the Aztecs in scoring during the 2018-19 and 2016-17 seasons after finishing second in 2017-18. He continued to contribute by averaging 1.71 points per game during his last semester with the team.
“I’m proud of my time here and I’m proud of my teammates,” Mayer said succinctly. “It’s a little nostalgic thinking back to how the team has developed over my five years here, moving the puck more, more speed, everyone contributing.”
Bateman had the pleasure of coaching Mayer for eight years, from youth hockey with the Junior Gulls through college.
“Aaron is exceptionally talented, enthusiastic, a student of the game, and a quiet leader for the program,” the SDSU coach said. “He has thrilled the fans of Aztecs hockey over his four-and-a-half years. Aaron’s calm presence will be deeply missed upon his graduation.”
Veteran defenseman Adrien Wisch also graduated alongside Mayer at the semester break.
“I’ve played hockey my whole life,” said Wisch, a Bay Area native. “To play my whole career at SDSU has been an honor. I don’t think I could have had any better teammates.”
Second-year goaltender Nick Ilvento (South Lake Tahoe) was the ironman of the 2019-20 squad by playing in every minute of the team’s 31 games, logging 1,928 minutes and 54 seconds while posting a 20-11 record, 3.14 goals-against average and a .898 save percentage.
Based on offseason recruiting, Bateman believes the Aztecs, who finished the season ranked 19th in the West region, have the potential to put together another highly successful season in 2020-21.
“We will have another talented incoming class,” the Aztec bench boss said. “If everything get back to normal, we will be more than ready to kick off our last campaign as an ACHA Division II team.”
Bateman said the program’s intent is to move up to ACHA Division I status.
As a season preview, SDSU has been invited to the 2021 Big Mountain Classic tournament Jan. 15-18 being hosted by Denver-based schools. Bateman said the Aztecs could potentially play Mary University, MSU Denver, Oregon, Weber State University, Dakota College, Boise State, University of Northern Colorado, University of Colorado, Williston State, Michigan State, CSU Northridge or Denver University.
Mary University finished first in the final West region rankings while MSU Denver was third. Weber State finished sixth in the regional rankings while Dakota College was seventh, Northridge was 11th, Northern Colorado was 13th, Colorado was 15th and Williston State was 18th.
Michigan State finished 19th in the Central region rankings.
“It traditionally lures the best from around the country,” the SDSU coach said of the multi-regional draw event. “We are one of the best teams in California.”
The University of San Diego finished as the top team in the five-team WCHC Tier 2 division in 2019-20 with a 8-0 record and defeated Long Beach State, 4-3, in the opening round of the conference playoffs, which took place Feb. 8-9 in Anaheim.
Some new faces helped the Toreros secure their record-breaking season.
Freshman Holden Fry led the team with 24 goals and finished third overall with 39 points, trailing returners Basi Morand (20 goals, 49 points) and Brett Roenick (15 goals, 45 points). Freshman Patrick Routzon (eight goals, 21 points) finished fourth in team scoring.
“I really like the team atmosphere,” Fry said. “The boys are great, high spirits. The boys are looking out for each other. It’s really fun to play for the guy next to you.”
The top five teams in the WCHC Tier 1 division, plus two teams from the Tier 2 division, comprised this year’s seven-team playoff field.
Tier 1 qualifiers included top-seeded Cal State Northridge (CSUN), second-seeded Loyola Marymount University, third-seeded Long Beach State, fourth-seeded CSU Fullerton and fifth-seeded UC Santa Barbara
USD, seeded sixth, joined tournament host Chapman University, seeded seventh, as Tier 2 qualifiers.
Roenick scored three goals, Fry scored once and Morand collected three assists in the history-making playoff win over the Forty-Niners. Nicholas Schrepfer tallied twice for the Long Beach State in the loss.
USD advanced to meet Northridge in the semifinals and ended the season with a 10-2 loss to the high-powered Matadors.
Routzon and Fry each scored goals for USD while Morand picked up assists on both tallies.
The Matadors (22-1-2-0-0-1) would advance to win their fourth consecutive conference title after defeating Loyla Marymount, 4-2, in the tournament championship game. LMU finished an otherwise fine season 17-9-1.
Morand earned Second Team All-WCHC postseason honors.
UC Irvine, a first-year team, was nearly perfect in the WCHC Tier 2 standings with a 5-2-1 division record to place runner-up to the Toreros, followed by Chapman in third place, UC San Diego (3-4-1 in division) in fourth place and CSU Bakersfield (1-6-1 in division) in fifth place.
“The tiers worked out very well, a lot more closer games and no more major blowouts,” Loyola Marymount general manager Tyler Goeckner-Zoeller said. “Though no Tier 2 team beat a Tier1 team (in the regular season), they seem well structured. By finishing first, USD has the option to move up to Tier 1 next season.”
— Phillip Brents
(June 1, 2020)