Coming off last season's New England Small College Athletic Conference hockey title, and returning a veteran corps that already had established itself as a force, Trinity may have underestimated how difficult the 2016-17 season would be.
Right out of the gate the Bantams lost at Tufts, and then in mid-January they were swept on the road by Colby and Bowdoin, outscored 8-2 in the process. Something just was not right.
"There were definitely some bumps in the road," Trinity senior Ryan Cole said. "There have been more ups and downs this season than at any time in my four years. But the best part about this team is, when it really matters, we play our best. And coming down the stretch our guys have played incredibly well."
Since Feb. 3, the Bantams have won eight straight, a streak that carried them through the NESCAC Tournament last weekend and now prepares them for Saturday's first-round NCAA Division III playoff game against Plattsburgh State at home (7 p.m.).
"Sometimes hitting those lows in the season can make you that much stronger," Cole said. "We regrouped after the losses to Bowdoin and Colby; we didn't want to waste all of this potential. Ever since then, it's been a great team effort. Team character is what has defined us this season."
Plattsburgh enters the NCAA Tournament with an automatic bid earned winning the SUNYAC championship. The Cardinals upset Oswego State 3-2 in the finals and are 11-3-1 since Jan. 1. Coached by Bob Emery, now in his 28th season, the Cardinals are making their 24th NCAA appearance and third in six years. The Cardinals are winless in their last four tournament games, their last victory coming against Middlebury in the 2010 quarterfinals.
Their balanced offense is led by freshman forward Joe Drabin, with 11 goals and 10 assists; junior Ayrton Valente, with six goals and a team-high 15 assists; and sophomore forward Cole Stallard, with a team-high 12 goals and eight assists.
Trinity is No. 8 and Plattsburgh State No. 12 in the D3Hockey.com National Poll; the Bantams are tied for No. 9 and the Cardinals are No. 12 in the United States College Hockey Online.com Division III National Poll.
Trinity came into the season ranked No. 7 nationally in the D3Hockey.com National Pre-Season Poll. The Bantams returned their top five goal scorers and an experienced defense from last year's squad that won the NESCAC title and returned to the NCAA Tournament.
"It has been a little rocky this season," Trinity coach Matt Greason said. "We had an older group and I think, unfortunately in the back of our heads, we thought that maybe because we'd been together for such a long time that [the season] might be easy. We didn't put two and two together that we had to work for everything, every day."
For Trinity, last season's tournament run was a short one. Given a home game in the first round, the Bantams were shut out 4-0 by UMass-Boston to end any aspiration for back-to-back national championships.
The most prolific scoring attack in the conference last season picked up right where it left off. The trio of senior captain Sean Orlando, Cole and junior Anthony Sabitsky, who combined to score 31 goals and 76 points last season, have had another great season.
Orlando and junior forward Tyler Whitney were first and second in the league in scoring; Orlando leads the NESCAC with 1.22 points per game and Whitney is second. Sabitsky is third, Cole is fifth.
"We have four strong centers and three or four lines that can all score," Greason said. "All six of our defensemen have played in critical minutes. And I will take our goalie [Alex Morin] against any goalie in the country."
Sabitsky leads the conference in goals (16) while Orlando is tied for second with 15. Whitney leads the league with 20 assists and is also first in power play points while Orlando is tied for second in power play scoring.
On defense, senior captain Sam Johnson and T.J. Sherman have anchored the unit in front of Morin, who is third in the league in goals-against (1.80) and was the workhorse last weekend, earning all three wins paving the path to the NESCAC championship.