Men’s hockey returns to NCAA Tournament after capturing fourth UCHC title


Kayleigh Sturtevant

The Utica University men’s hockey team goes back to back after beating Nazareth 5-3 in the UCHC title game.

Mickale Thompson, News Editor

The Utica Men’s hockey team captured back-to-back UCHC Conference Championships and earned their fourth in program history after beating Nazareth College 5-3 at the Adirondack Bank Center on March 4. 

The no.1 and no. 2 seeded teams came out with intention, but Golden Flyers would draw first blood at the 9:47 mark. The equalizer from Brandon Osmundson  tied the game 1-1 at the 1:45. Then a Dante Zapata goal with 9:04 on the clock would come in the second intermission giving the Pioneer’s first lead of the game. 

Moments later, a Buster Larsson shot would find the back of the net to make it 3-1 until a crafty Kimball Johnson upped the lead to 4. Nazareth would find two more goals and cut the deficit by one until Zapata doubled his goal tally after firing to an empty net off the assist from John Moncovich to cap off a successful season and advance to the NCAA Tournament. 

“It feels great knowing the hard work, dedication, and sacrifice both on and off the ice paid off,” defenseman Joey Berkopec said. “To achieve such a feat is a testament to the team’s resilience, perseverance, and unwavering commitment to excellence.” 

The Pioneers finished the regular season with a record of 25-2-1 overall and 20-0 in conference play. Head Coach Gary Heenan said the team was pushed on the night but persevered. 

“I’m proud of our guys,” he told the Daily Sentinel. “It wasn’t our best performance. But, we’re moving on.”

A two-goal brace wasn’t all Zapata would walk away with. The team captain earned Most Valuable Player of the tournament on the back of reviving All-UCHC second-team honors for his double-digit goals and assists this season. 

“It’s really nice to look around and see smiles on everyone’s faces,” Zapata said. “Back to back champions is something that sits well with you. It’s a great experience every single time with different guys and it’s really nice to enjoy a win like that but we all understood that the job wasn’t done.”  

The team looks forward to the NCAA tournament after receiving a bye and hopes to settle unfinished business after suffering a loss to the University of New England last year in the tournament as they go in search of a national title. 

“We are definitely motivated by the memory of our loss last season,” Berkopec said. “We know how much it hurt to fall short of our goal, and we are using that as fuel to push ourselves even harder this year.

For fellow teammates, the bye presents an opportunity to heal war wounds from this season and come back fresh as the Pioneers prepare to host the winner of Plymouth State vs University of New England in the Quarterfinal round on March 18. 

“A bye like this gives us some time to recover from a long and hard season,” junior Blake Holmes said. “[We’ve] checked off two of the three boxes we set as goals before the season began, a regular-season championship and a conference championship, now we take our experience from winning this past weekend and turn our sights towards the national championship.” 

The team looks to carry sound momentum in the tournament and not looking too far ahead is a key theme in the locker room. 

“We were a really good team last year and we had a lot of talent but I do believe that we got a little bit ahead of ourselves sometimes talking a little bit too much about down the road,” Zapata said. “This year we’ve done a really good job managing that in the locker room and keeping our minds focused on one day at a time [was] the big message this year.”