TEMPE, Ariz. -- "We will reload. We will not rebuild."
From a lot of coaches, such words would come across as rhetoric, empty rah-rah words intended to keep morale high and fans in the stands.
Greg Powers is not such a coach. When he says it, you believe it.
To paraphrase Walter White, Powers' Sun Devils aren't in the championship business.
They're in the dynasty business.
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The 2009-2010 Sun Devil team had a good year.
They went 26-12, snapped a two-year skid of sub.500 seasons, and made the ACHA National Tournament for the first time in four years. They even upset Liberty in the opening round to advance to the quarterfinals before losing to Ohio.
But good is not the goal. It is not the Sun Devil standard that Powers envisioned for his alma mater, the place where he starred as a three-time ACHA All-American goalie.
After that season, Powers—then an assistant on ASU's staff—took over as head coach and went to work on building a championship program. His first mission was to bring in a core of players from which to build around.
"In the past, ASU has had up and down seasons, but never really been a consistent contender in any sense," said Powers. "When they (his first recruiting class) came here, the program was down. It was an unranked commodity, and not proven in any way."
“When I first came, ASU hockey was hardly on the map,” David Jantzie, one of Powers' initial signees, remembers.
Jantzie was joined by a several players who would end up playing a pivotal role in the transformation of Sun Devil hockey and symbolize the growing reach of the program.
Powers went to traditional hockey-rich hotbeds for players like Jantzie (Alberta), Troy Scott (Pennsylvania) and three-year team captain Colin Hekle (Manitoba). He also stayed home for local Arizona talent, and plucked future stars Danny McAuliffe and Brett Prechel from here in the Valley.
Bolstered by the new talent, Powers immediately led ASU back to the tournament. Sun Devil hockey was on its way.
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“You have 20 minutes. You have a 20-minute game to go win. If you win the next 20 minutes, we’re going to advance."
That was the message Powers gave to his team during the second intermission during last week's semifinal game against fifth-seeded Stony Brook.
After shutting out their first two opponents, the top-seeded Sun Devils surrendered three goals in the final five minutes of the second period to find themselves trailing 3-2. The blitz brought back memories of last year's Final Four collapse to Lindenwood, in which the Lions scored four times in the first period to topple the Sun Devils.
This year, adversity did nothing to shake ASU's confidence.
"I felt like if we got one, we would definitely get two," Powers said. "There wasn’t a guy in the room that didn’t believe that."
That faith was rewarded when Faiz Khan and Jantzie scored in the period to send the Sun Devils to their first national championship game.
"We got some good production from unlikely guys, and we moved on," said Powers. "It was pretty cool, and it makes the run that much more special.”
That it did.
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The recipe for ASU's tournament success came largely from two sources, one expected and the other surprising.
During the regular season, the Sun Devils fielded the nation's top defense, allowing just 1.4 goals-per-game. A large part of that stinginess came from their dynamic duo in goal.
Senior Joe D'Elia was the returning starter, a player already with a national championship on his resume from his freshman year at Davenport University. D'Elia was joined this year by highly-touted freshman Robert Levin, and both quickly went about stopping every puck in sight.
D'Elia had a career year, posting his best-ever marks in GAA (1.80) and save percentage (.930) along with a 14-1 record. Yet as excellent as he was, his younger counterpart was better.
Levin led the ACHA in save percentage (.956), GAA (1.12) and shutouts (six). His success gave Powers and unrivaled "1 and 1A" situation in goal, but it also put him to a decision come tournament time.
Experienced veteran or freshman phenom?
As many expected, Levin was the pick, and he rewarded his coach's faith by winning the tournament MVP award as he stopped 92 of the 96 shots fired his way over four games.
“I think we could have won with Joe in net," said Powers. "However, I just felt that Rob gave us the best chance to win. He plays a nice, calm style of goalie that has a calming effect over our bench. He’s been almost invincible as far letting in soft goals. At Nationals, in a single-elimination environment, when you have a goalie in that you know won’t let in goals that he shouldn’t, that’s everything. His ability to not let in a soft goal was really why I went with him.”
While Levin was tending goal, the Sun Devil offense was powered by an unlikely source.
"Going into the tournament, I thought we were going to get the most production out of (Sean) Murphy, McAuliffe, and (Eric) Rivard because I knew that everyone would be keying in on Hekle and Kale (Dolinski)’s lines," Powers said.
Those high-scoring players did play a large role in team's run, but it was the grinders on the fourth line that became the catalyst for a title team.
"I knew the fourth line was going to contribute, and I had every intention of playing four lines, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted that through the first three games them carrying us," Powers admits. "(Patrick) Yudez was incredible, Troy (Scott) was incredible, Jantzie was incredible."
Indeed they were.
Jantzie and Scott each scored three goals and tied for the team's tournament scoring lead with five points, and Jantzie received a spot on the All-Tournament team. Yudez added three assists, and was a relentless force on both ends of the ice. So effective were they that, in essence, the fourth line became the first line.
"When a line plays that well, they are hard to stop," said Powers. "I started them every game. I hadn’t started them once all season. They started all four at nationals and essentially winning us our first national title.”
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“I don’t really remember."
Powers' first thoughts as the final buzzer sounded, anointing him a champion, may elude him, but he vividly recalls the game's tense final minutes.
Thanks to a pair of goals by freshman Ryan Ostertag, the Sun Devils held a 2-0 lead late in the third period. It appeared that Levin's third shutout of the tournament was a formality. Time to chill the champagne.
Only it wasn't.
Third-ranked Robert Morris University finally got on the board with a goal from Chayce Coenen. With four minutes left on the clock, it was a brand new hockey game. Nothing was assured and everything was uncertain, but you wouldn't know it by looking at ASU's bench.
"When they scored, there was no panic," said Powers. "There was a calm confidence over our bench. Knowing how good we are defensively and how good our goaltender is, we weren’t going to give up another one."
Powers kept his team focused over the final minutes with shortened shifts. ASU's depth, arguably the best in the ACHA, paid dividends as the Sun Devils continually put out energized skaters while the Eagles were on fumes.
“We were smart. We kept shifts very short. We kept fresh. We kept pucks deep, and they generated no offense. The guys hung on with Robert (Levin) shutting the door for us."
They did and he did. It was time to exhale and celebrate.
“It was pure elation, a lot of hard work coming to a head.”
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Winning the program's first national championship is a reward on a number of levels.
ASU sends out their senior class as champions, with many of those players like Hekle, McAuliffe, and Jantzie having been lured to Tempe by Powers, the first-year head coach.
“There’s never going to be a group of kids that deserve to go out on top like these eight do," said Powers of the senior class—Hekle, Jantzie, Scott, Dolinski, Prechel, D'Elia, McAuliffe and Brian McGinty. "They came to ASU before we were established and built. They believed in what we wanted to build, and most importantly, made that a reality. They deserve it. They earned and they deserved it.”
"It really hasn’t quite hit me yet that it’s over," said Jantzie of his ASU career. "It’s so great that we ended the way we did. After the three years that we gave away pretty good shots at winning other national championships, it’s good to win the way we did.”
“The place that the program was in when I started here is a complete distant memory to where it is today,” said Hekle. “His impact on this program has been huge. With his recruiting, he’s taken the program to a whole other level where we can compete with any team in any league.”
Personally, the championship resonated with Powers. It wasn't just a championship for ASU. It was a championship orchestrated by a fellow Sun Devil.
“I came back to the program because I love ASU, and I have a huge passion for ASU hockey," said Powers. "I always felt that the program could be what it is today. To be the guy that guided us to our first national championship is something that I will always remember."
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National champs. Now what?
One of the most often asked questions from fans following the title is "When is ASU going to the NCAA?"
Under Powers, ASU has become a program that elite players flock to, with many passing up scholarship opportunities from top NCAA programs to pay their own way to play in the desert. Despite a current talent level that would allow the Sun Devils to compete at the NCAA level, factors such as Title IX compliance and funding mean a move is not in the immediate future.
Should that day come, however, Powers believes the rest of the NCAA should watch out.
“If they did add it, I do fully believe that ASU could field an extremely competitive national championship-caliber program in a very short period of time," Powers said. "I have no doubt about it. If and when that day comes, we can all be very proud about it.”
For now, the focus is solely on a repeat. Dynasty building is a serious business, and there's no time to waste.
The day after his team hoisted the Murdoch Cup, Powers was working the phones to land the next class of Sun Devil stars.
“For me, I already started recruiting today. There is never a better day to recruit than the day after you win a national championship," said Powers. "I’ve been on the phone a lot today and have been reaching out to kids who I’ve been after. Interest is definitely fully piqued. We expect to have ourselves a very, very elite recruiting class.”
It was Powers the recruiter's success, over the last two years in particular, that laid the foundation for Powers the coach to capture this championship
"We have tremendous young talent already in the program," said Powers. "If you look at the national tournament, we have Ryan Ostertag and Drew Newmeyer who were first-team All-Tournament. Robert Levin is a freshman who was the tournament MVP. Take kids like Patrick Yudez and Sean Murphy and Eric Rivard and Chris Burkemper. (Brett) Blomgren is a sophomore, Jordan Young is a sophomore, (Alex) Temby is a freshman. Integral pieces to this championship team are underclassmen, and most of them are freshmen."
With that caliber of talent coming back, Powers is viewing the 2013-2014 national championship not as the culmination of years of hard work, but the coronation of a new king of ACHA hockey.
“We’re looking to defend. We are not a rebuild program. That’s an excuse for coaches to buy time. It’s not what we do here, and it’s not how we’re ever going to operate. We will reload. We will not rebuild.
"We could come back with what we have right now and compete to win and be a favorite to win a national championship, but with the pieces that I’m going to add from the outside, we will again be the favorite to defend our national championship.”
Welcome to the new standard of Sun Devil hockey.