By Brandon Hillary
Illinois State hockey has turned the Pepsi Ice Center into a winter wonderland this season, not only because of the ice, but also because of all the Ws.
The ’Birds have come away with wins in 16 of their first 19 games, which marks the best start in school history. They are currently ranked third in the nation and first in the central region.
Last year, the team advanced to the Frozen Four in the Men’s American Collegiate Hockey Association (MACHA) national playoffs before losing to Grand Valley 1-0 on a third period Grand Valley power play. This season the expectations are even higher.
“We came close to the finals, but not close enough,” Coach Brian Corley said, who is in his ninth season with ISU. “It is our intention to get back there this year. We intend to be there in Boston this March and bring a National Championship back to Illinois State.”
While most teams play with a championship mentality, Corley and the Redbirds have assembled a team that poses a legitimate threat to this year’s title. Fourteen players are returning from last year’s Frozen Four run, hungry to make another appearance. They are led by fourth-year team captain, Josh Ambrosat, who joined the team after playing for the Chicago Fury, and third-year alternate captain, Connor Anderson, who leads the team with 19 goals through 19 games. They are also fortified by goalie Scott Czarnik, who has compiled an impressive career record of 20-1-1 over the last three seasons.
To be able to mention all of the noteworthy players would require a complete list of the roster. All 25 Redbirds compete and contribute every game. Every team at this level will have at least 10 great athletes to put on the ice each night, but many times it is the second set of 10 players who are the ones who help win it. Corley believes that the depth of the Redbird bench is the key to the ongoing success of their season.
As if a National Championship goal is not enough, the team desires nothing but the best en route to Boston.
“I would say the first goal is winning the regular season MACHA conference title,” junior defenseman Jordan Leach said. “Then after that, winning the MACHA conference tournament. If we accomplish both of those goals, we have a good chance of finishing the season ranked first in our region.”
Winning is not a problem for these Redbirds. It has proven to be something they are good at after last year’s postseason stretch and this year’s early success. Currently, the only problem is dealing with the disappointment of a rare loss.
“I think our biggest struggle is learning how to lose,” Corley says. “These guys are so hyper-focused on perfection that when something doesn’t go our way and we lose a game, it can be quite stressful for everyone. We’re working on learning how to lose in such a way that we can build off of it instead of letting it push us down.”
The Redbirds will be traveling to Missouri State (11-4) this weekend to take on the Bears Friday and Saturday.
The ’Birds will return home to the Pepsi Ice Center on Dec. 6 and Dec. 7 when they host the Michigan Wolverines (7-2-1).