By Kim Wrona
3/16/16 – DeKalb, IL | After sweeping Ball State University during the final weekend of the 2015-16 regular season, the DIII Huskies participated in the MACHA Bronze Playoffs on February 12 and 13 at Owens Center in Peoria.
The first round of the playoffs for NIU featured a match-up against Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. The Huskies took the game by a score of 5-1. Junior forwards Tyler Hilton (twice), Brian Donchez, Ryan Long and Ryan Saunders all scored for NIU. Sophomore goaltender Jake Tower was in net.
“We came out kind of slow,” senior forward and team captain Jc Weems said. “We were really swarming the net, but their goalie was hanging in really tough and keeping their team in the game.”
“The SIUe game was a good game,” senior defenseman Gregg Jacobson said. “The team played well. Everyone was focused going into the weekend. SIUe played a really hard fought game.”
The following day, the Huskies found themselves in the MACHA Bronze Championship game for the second year in a row. Unlike the 2015 game where they defeated Robert Morris University Black, the Huskies were up against Western Illinois University for the title.
The first period was a scoreless affair, but Weems got the party started in the second period. Near the seven minute mark of the frame, he gave the Huskies the first lead of the game with his 17th goal of the season.
Western roared back with three straight goals in the middle frame to take a 3-1 lead, two of which were scored by former Huskie Matt Moore.
Hilton tightened the gap to one with just over two minutes left in the period with his 35th goal of the season.
WIU held its lead until late in the final frame. Hilton struck again for the Huskies with 4:32 left in regulation to tie the game up at three. Sophomore forward Eric Brennan then netted the game winning goal for NIU as he scored his fourth goal of the season with 1:19 left in the game to give the Huskies the 4-3 victory and back-to-back championships.
Tower made 28 saves on 31 shots in the contest while the Huskies outshot Western by a 38-31 margin.
“Saturday’s game was nerve-wracking,” head coach Nick Madonia said. “Credit to Western, they played a great game. They knew what they needed to do to keep the game close and they were able to do it.”
“We came out fast in the championship game,” Weems said. “We expected to jump all over them, but they pushed right back. Their goalie had a great game and they were capitalizing on every chance they had. It was huge for Brennan to get that last second goal. It was starting to get really desperate on the bench. We knew we were getting chances but not getting goals.”
“They just made it hard for us to gain the center of the ice,” Madonia said. “But at the same time, a good team is able to find a way to win and we proved time and again this year that we’re a good team. We were able to pull ourselves closer and eventually tie it. Brennan had the nice shot for the win.”
“The championship game was unbelievable to play in,” Jacobson said. “Western had a great game and really took it to us. Towards the end of the game, we had to come back and that’s when I think our team really turned it on and thankfully we won.”
“The MVP for the playoffs would have been Weems,” Madonia said. “He was an animal in the championship game. He had three points. As much as I hate to pump his ego, he had a great game.”
Many players stepped up for the Huskies on the long road to the championship.
“There are a number of candidates [for MVP of the season],” Madonia said. “Weems had a great year. Hilton had a great year, as did [junior forward] Cody [Billeck]. Both of our goalies [Tower and sophomore Zach Bugajsky] played well through the stretch. There are countless people that could get it so we’ll see once me and [assistant coach Brian] Hyken sit down and talk about it.”
For graduating seniors Weems, Jacobson, Daniel Flynn, Matt Schaben and Kyle Luken, they were able to end their college careers as champions.
“It feels great to end as a champion,” Weems said. “The boys worked so hard all year and to see it pay off in the end is always a great feeling.”
“It’s unreal to finish as a champion, especially since we won back-to-back,” Jacobson said. “It’s been a wild ride, especially since [I was] around when the D3 program started until now. It’s great to see how the team has changed and improved. I loved every second playing at NIU even with the rough years. It was a great experience and I’m proud of the guys on the team. They earned it.”
“There were a lot of question marks going into this year,” Madonia said. “Obviously losing Petey [junior defenseman Bryan Peterson] and [junior goaltender] JoJo [Durrbeck] [to the DII Huskies] was going to be tough, plus our graduating seniors.”
“We started the year with four freshmen defensemen,” he said. “So that was something that we were really worried about. But as the year went on, that wound up being a strength for us. Our defense played really well throughout the year. All of our rookies stepped up and improved greatly.”
The Huskies finished the 2015-16 season with a record of 20-10-1-1 and reached all of their goals.
“At the start of the year, me and Hyken sat down and set our goal,” Madonia said. “Last year we won 18 games. We wanted to win 20 this year. … We were able to win our 20th game in the championship. Overall, it was a very successful year and we’re excited to see the program grow.”