Tennessee takes hockey championship

After 43 years of building a hockey tradition, the University of Tennessee added to its history Sunday, beating the University of Georgia, 13-6, to win the inaugural Southeastern Hockey Conference Championship at the Pelham Civic Complex.

Senior Chris Neilson, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., was named the No. 1 star of the championship game for the Vols after scoring two goals and three assists. Sophomore forward Evan Marroni was named the No. 2 star after scoring two goals and an assist from the Vols’ third line.

“In a lot of ways they’re my best line lately,” Vols head coach Steve Durrigan said. “They’re not quite as talented as my other guys, but they cycle the puck better than most of the lines I’ve seen. You want to chew up offense, as much as you can chew up, and they’re great at it.”

Joining Marroni in the third line of rotation was also Scott Andrews and Isreal Ceja. Andrews had one goal and an assist, while Ceja had two assists.

Tennessee jumped out to a 4-0 lead over Georgia in the first period, as keeper Kelsey McLean stopped 12 Bulldog shots in the period, setting the tone for the game. He finished with 33 saves.

Offense has been a strong point for the Vols most of the season, as they showed it Friday to start the tournament, blowing past Mississippi State University, 24-1. However, the Vols ran into an unexpected test on Saturday in the University of Florida, edging the Gators, 8-7, in overtime.

Florida played a “near perfect game” Friday, according to Durrigan, when the Gators downed the University of Alabama Frozen Tide, 8-3, to advance to Saturday’s semifinal with the Vols.

Bama, who has used the Pelham Civic Complex as its home ice the past four seasons, entered the tournament as the No. 2 seed, but quickly saw its goal of playing in the final fall short.

“We just came out flat. I think the guys were maybe a little over excited and got undisciplined in some things and ran into a very, very hot goalie for Florida,” Frozen Tide head coach Jeff Cheeseman said.

Bama rallied to pull with in a goal, 4-3, with 13.5 minutes left to play in the game, but a few bad decisions late cost them the Frozen Tide the game.

“It left a bad taste in our mouth for sure, but we came back and played a good game against Arkansas to finish off our year,” Cheeseman said.

Bama beat Arkansas, 6-3, Saturday to finish the season with a 20-8 record, its best year in the program’s short history.

Two of the guys who helped start the program, Will Damare and Adam English, were two of six seniors that finished their career Saturday.

“They will be missed, but they’ve done a great job of teaching what needs to be done,” Cheeseman said.

Though disappointed of not playing in the final, Cheeseman said he thought the Frozen Tide booster club and the city of Pelham put on a great show for the teams and fans in attendance. Durrigan aggreed.

“The tournament was run unbelievably well,” Durrigan said. “The volunteers were terrific. Everything was first class. They treated us like kings walking in.”

UT (22-6-1) leaves Tuesday for Rochester, N.Y. to compete in the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) Division III National Championships. The Vols, the No. 4 seed from the South, will meet the No. 1 team from the North, Hope College, March 4 at 7 p.m.

“I think it’s a good draw for us. They’re the No. 1 team in the North, so somewhere along the way we have to beat them to advance. To get them in the first round is good for us,” Durrigan said. “My guys are playing pretty well right now.”