Building the William & Mary ice hockey program into a winner wasn’t going to be easy. Ken Felix knew that.
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As first-year Tribe coach four years ago, the team won just one of its 12 games. Felix had maybe a dozen skaters of varying skill levels. Fatigue was a constant, undeniable factor.
“When the other team has 20 guys on their bench and 12 to 15 of them are pretty skilled, it’s difficult to compete,” Felix recalled.
There was only one answer. Since high school hockey players weren’t going to receive any special inducements to attend W&M, the team was going to have to grow in size and skill from students who had already gained admission.
And that’s exactly what happened.
Three years ago, a freshman named Jay Sogliuzzo – “our over-the-top player,” Felix calls him – led a small group of players who joined the team. The record improved to about .500.
Last season, three impact freshmen arrived in Matt Leavy, Austin Yeager, and Chris Crisalli. All of a sudden, Felix had something good going, good enough to overcome having to drive 30 minutes twice a week for practice sessions that began about the hour prime-time television programs were ending.
“I can’t point to anything I did and say, ‘That was the difference,’ ” Felix said. “It was the luck of the draw. The freshmen last year helped us build the good talent base we needed.”
It all came together the weekend of Feb. 25-27 at the Blue Ridge Hockey Conference playoffs in Lynchburg. The Tribe defeated Atlantic Division rivals Radford and Liberty, 3-1 and 3-2, respectively. That set up a match with Carolina Division champion The Citadel for the BRHC title.
W&M scored two goals in a 10-second span in the second period then rode the freakish goaltending of Elderidge Nichols to a 3-1 victory and the championship.
A first-year law student at the College, Nichols played three seasons at Duke. During the tournament, Nichols faced 81 shots on goal and stopped 77 of them.
“Several of those were breakaways the other team had,” Felix said. “His ability to block them and keep us in those games was crucial. Stopping one of those also pumps up your own team.”
Against The Citadel, the Tribe went on a power play. Playing five-on-four, Crisalli fired the puck at the opposing goalie who blocked the shot but it rebounded away from him. Sogliuzzo collected the loose puck and shoved it into the net for a 1-0 lead.
Seconds later, Yeager made a mad dash up the ice and slammed the puck past the stunned Citadel goalie. Up by two goals, Felix instructed his team to dial back its aggressive style and play defense.
Although The Citadel scored once in the third period, Crisalli negated that with a goal of his own to seal the outcome.
“These kids are really skilled and have real impressive backgrounds,” Felix said. “They’re really intelligent about hockey. I learn more from them than they probably do from me.”
How far Tribe hockey has come under Felix was in evidence during the tournament. Earlier in the season, W&M allowed Liberty to score nine goals. Changing to a more conservative, defensive style in the playoffs, the Tribe allowed just two in the rematch.
But with more speed than The Citadel, W&M reverted to the aggressive style it used during the regular season to thwart the Bulldogs.
Felix says next season could be special as well.
“We need to add a half-dozen talented kids on the team to keep this going,” he said. “We know the kids are already in school, we just need them to come out.”