Weekend wins launch UK to national tourney

A trip to Florida never felt so cool.

After a pair of big wins in the Southeast Regional Tournament this weekend, the UK hockey team will venture to Fort Meyers, Fla., to compete for its first national championship.

The Cool Cats defeated fourth-seeded Wagner College 4-2 Friday and third-seeded William Patterson University 3-2 Saturday in the Southeast Regional Tournament in Washington, D.C. With the wins, UK qualified for the American Collegiate Hockey Association Division II National Tournament for the first time in 13 years.

“It’s really, really cool,” said Patrick McAdams, senior defenseman and assistant captain. “This weekend could have been our last ever. We haven’t been (to the national tournament) in forever; it’s pretty neat to be the first UK team to go in so long. We had a rough start to the season, for awhile it seemed so far off.”

The Cool Cats won just four of their first 12 games to open the year; one of the losses was an 8-2 whooping by William Patterson in October. But the team rebounded and finished the season winning 16 of its final 21 contests to earn a No. 9 ranking in the Southeast Region.

The top two teams of each of the four regions (West, Southeast, Northeast and Central) automatically qualify for the national tournament at the end of the regular season. The regional tournaments pitted the teams ranked 3-through-10 in each region against each other in seeded playoffs, with the top two teams from the tourney earning a national tournament berth.

As a nine seed, the Cool Cats defeated Wagner in the tournament’s first round.

The teams were reshuffled after the first game so the highest seed played the lowest seed, matching UK up with William Patterson.

After the 8-2 drumming UK took against the Pioneers in the regular season, the Cool Cats were looking for payback in the regionals, said senior goalie Drew Matichak.

“It was revenge, we weren’t going let it happen again,” he said. “Everyone came out and played their best game this time. We knew what to expect.”

Head coach Rob Docherty echoed that sentiment.

“When we played them earlier we weren’t ready,” he said. “It taught us a lesson. We had to live with that loss. It’s nice to get them back when it really counts.”

The game illustrated how much UK has grown during the course of the season, Docherty said.

“The depth of the team has really shown up,” he said. “At the beginning of the season we just weren’t catching the bounces, all those little things just weren’t going for us, we were hitting goal posts, all that stuff. Now we’re playing patient and gelling well together at the right time. I’m very proud of them, they’re enjoying it.”

Though the Cool Cats are not sure who their opponent will be in the opening round of the ACHA National Tournament, Docherty said they would be ready for whoever it is.

“I’ve said it before, it doesn’t matter who we play against, we’ll take on anybody,” he said. “We’ve always played well against the top-ranked teams; we love to play in big game situations. Rankings don’t matter at this point, we’ll be ready for anybody.”

The team will continue to practice every Tuesday and Thursday and hit the gym to keep in shape during the long break before the 16-team playoff, which starts March 12. UK is not satisfied with just making the tournament, Matichak said.

“We can beat anybody,” he said. “We’ve come to believe in ourselves, we’re not just happy about making it this far, we want to win it.”