SMC Men's Ice Hockey team 2002

COLCHESTER — Just as the landscape of college hockey started changing in the late 1990s, the Saint Michael's College men's ice hockey team began a run of success never seen before or since at the school, winning the final NCAA Division II Tournament before claiming three straight Northeast-10 Conference Tournaments.

That first league title, secured in 2002, has been recognized among the NE10's 40 most iconic moments in the league's 40-year history. The win sparked a championship threepeat, the only one of its kind in St. Mike's history.

"I was very proud of the team," said Lou DiMasi, who won 264 games between 1982 and 2007 as Purple Knight head coach. "I was very proud of our goaltender, Simon Theberge '02, the senior leadership was certainly outstanding, and this was a team that never quit, never gave up. The captains, Jeremy Coccaro '02, Jim Walsh '02 and Andy Welgos '02, were tremendous leaders. As a coach, I was just so proud of this group. I'll never forget the bus ride home afterwards with grins from ear to ear."

After appearing in its first postseason championship game in 1997-98, in the old Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) North-Central-South Tournament, St. Mike's reached the semifinals the next year in the newly formed ECAC Northeast.

St. Mike's capped that winter by capturing the 1999 NCAA Division II Tournament series — the sport's last Division II tournament sponsored by the NCAA — against Southern New Hampshire University, 1-0-1.  At that point, only five Division II teams remained, with eight having reclassified as Division I prior to the season.

Starting with the 1999-2000 season, the remaining Division II teams — all NE10 members, and no longer eligible to compete in the ECAC Northeast Tournament —squared off for what later became the NE10 Tournament.

The Purple Knights were semifinalists in the first two championships, losing by a goal each time to Saint Anselm College, but a move to the ECAC East in 2001-02 set them up for a more challenging regular-season schedule in a league dominated by New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) schools, such as NCAA Division III power Middlebury College, which had recently capped a run of five straight national titles.

"Now that we were playing more competitive NESCAC and ECAC teams, we definitely had to be on our 'A' game compared to playing the weaker ECAC Northeast teams," said Coccaro, who joined Welgos as an assistant captain, while Walsh captained the squad. "Playing the tougher competition definitely prepared us more for Saint A's, who was considered one of the stronger ECAC East teams."

To his point, the Purple Knights had just come from a league whose tournament champion had gone 0-4 in the prior two NCAA Division III Tournaments while being outscored 34-6. The 2001-02 ECAC East titlist, Norwich University, on the other hand, won the conference championship game, 10-1, before advancing to the national title game.

A 9-14-1 regular-season mark and 5-13-1 league record in their debut ECAC East season belied the fact that the Purple Knights were 7-6-1 in games decided by two goals or less heading into the postseason. As the No. 2 seed in the four-team NE10/ECAC Division II Tournament, St. Mike's hosted No. 3 Southern New Hampshire on Feb. 26 for a semifinal. The team secured securing victory 2-1 win.

A postseason date with top-seeded Saint Anselm, for the third straight season was set. The Hawks, who began playing in 1999-2000, had won all four meetings with St. Mike's heading into the finale.

The title tilt, at the Tri-Town Ice Arena in Hooksett, N.H., on March 2, did not begin as planned for a Purple Knight team seeking its first conference championship. Down 3-0 just 10:45 into the game, St. Mike's remained down three, at 5-2, following a Hawk power-play goal at 16:00 of the second period.

"Even when we were down 4-1 and 5-2, there was still that sense that we had a chance," said Coccaro. "I wish there was a video of the game in the hockey office because for me, this was the greatest game I remember being [in] at Saint Mike's. I remember saying 'we are not losing this game' about 100 times on the bench to the guys."

And then, in a 47-second flurry, three Purple Knights scored. Gavin Faretra '04 on a power play at 17:42. Nick Berno '03 from Welgos at 18:06. Defenseman Daykin Marini '03 from Faretra and Coccaro at 18:29.

"Hard work breeds success and the concept of never quitting," said DiMasi. "Quitters never win, winners never quit. I said it all the time to the teams. That just right there is, they never quit. They never quit."

The tie proved to be short-lived, as the Hawks retook the lead. However, just 30 seconds into the third period, and 44 seconds following Saint Anselm's go-ahead tally, Mike Duffy '04 found the equalizer, tipping home Marini's slapshot and capping a mad stretch that featured eight goals in a matter of 12:27.

"What sticks in my head the most was in the locker room before we went out for overtime," said Coccaro. "Us seniors took over, pacing the locker room, saying there is no way we are losing this game after working this hard to come back." While Coccaro, Walsh and Welgos had been major contributors since the 1999 NCAA championship season, when Theberge was a back-up, it ended up being a junior who sent them out on top.

Berno, the tournament MVP, converted a Welgos assist just 53 seconds into the extra session, finishing off the wild 7-6 win and delivering the Purple Knights their first postseason conference crown. "I just remember that we just needed to put ourselves in a position to take the shot," said DiMasi. "Don't think you're looking for a pretty play, just put it on and go for it, that type of thing."

"The biggest sense of relief and accomplishment came when we finally won the game," added Coccaro. "It was a great way to finish off our hockey playing careers to go out as champs."

Walsh concurred. "We had lost a tough one to Saint A's the previous year that was in our minds, and this game started really rough," he said. "But it was the playoffs and a big rival for us, so the boys battled until the end, and the season of hard work paid off."

Thanks to a bevy of talented and postseason-experienced veterans, that win was only the beginning of three consecutive NE10 Tournament titles, a feat unmatched before or since by any Saint Michael's program, as the Purple Knights downed Saint Anselm by a single goal in each title game, continuing a rivalry that has included 10 postseason meetings, including seven in championship contests.

Such players as Duffy (4 G-6 A), Faretra (9 G-16 A), Chris Gross '03 (8 G-5 A), Brent Hill '04 (3 G-9 A) and Justin Quenneville '04 (12 G-4 A) not only had standout seasons in 2001-02 but keyed the three-year title run, while Coccaro (9 G-16 A), Theberge (.900 SV%, 3.90 GAA), Walsh (5 G-12 A) and Welgos (7 G-9 A) went out winners.

Coccaro and Walsh earned all-conference nods as seniors, while Nick Towne '05 landed league all-rookie team accolades. Theberge's name remains prevalent in the program's record book, as he still holds the school record for career saves (2,344) while standing second in wins (31). Coccaro is among 10 50-goal scorers (51).

DiMasi was not only complimentary of his coaching staff — assistant coaches Chris Davidson '99 and Scott Miller '97, goalie coach Bill Corbo and defensive coach Mike Ludwar — and the support the team received from the players' families, but of his players and their determination. "The concepts of hard work, never giving up," he said. "The concept of getting up every morning to skate at practice - sometimes at 6 o'clock. What college kid does that? There's some special stuff that comes out of that."

The Purple Knights would hoist the NE10 trophy once again in both 2007-08 and 2008-09, now under the guidance of Davidson and behind two-time tournament MVP goalie Tyler Bilton '09, to finish off a run of five titles in eight years. The Purple and Gold's success has continued with five trips to the finals over the past decade, including four with Damian DiGiulian at the helm, with three regular-season crowns.

However, all of that league success began with Walsh and the 2001-02 team. "We had a great group that year, and finishing the season - and for a bunch of us, college hockey - with a win was fantastic," he said. "It's fun to trade stories with the group when we reconnect, and Berno's big game-winner always makes the list."

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