by Matthew Webb
Senior Writer, D3hockey.com
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- When Chris Brooks took over the head job at Stevens Point in 2011, the Pointers had spent the better part of 15 years mired in a state of mediocrity. That changed in a hurry, however, as Brooks engineered a rapid turnaround that led to three Frozen Four appearances and culminated with the 2016 national championship -- the program's first in 23 years.
|Despite a first-year head coach and ten new players on the roster, UW-Stevens Point adapted to the changes well to advance to its fourth Frozen Four in five years.
But last June, a big change hit the program as Brooks accepted a position as an assistant coach at Division I Michigan Tech. Already well in to the offseason, the university elevated then-assistant Tyler Krueger to interim head coach for the upcoming 2017-18 season. A four-year letterwinner for the Pointers and senior captain on their 2014 national runner-up club, Krueger was a familiar face to the team though obviously a brand new one when it came to being the top guy.
"You now, not really when it came to things changing," said Pointers' junior captain Stephen Beauvais. "Maybe there were some small changes but those are going to come any time you get a new coach coming in. (Krueger) was here when Brooks was here and was here when they made some Frozen Four runs, so he understands the character and identity this team has had and everyone kept that up when it came to this year and he's been excellent so far."
From there, even more changes were in store as Stevens Point graduated eight players off last year's team, including four of its top five scorers. In their stead entered nine freshmen and sophomore Luke McElhenie, a transfer from Division I University of Massachusetts.
One of those newcomers is freshman forward Zach Zech, who has turned in a 17-point season and already come up big in the postseason as he scored twice in the Pointers' quarterfinal win at Adrian.
"I was playing down in Texas, in Odessa (NAHL), and I started talking to UW-Stevens Point and Chris Brooks," Zech said. "I knew that was the place for me so around December, which is early for a DIII commit, I told him I wanted to come there."
"So I ended up committing and mid-way through the summer (Brooks) called me and told me he's taking a job at Michigan Tech. Obviously I didn't know what was going on and then Krueger called me and told me he was taking over, and it felt really comfortable and it's been awesome ever since."
The phone call from Krueger served as more of a formal introduction than it did anything else.
"The first time I talked to him was five minutes after Brooks told me he was leaving. I then talked to him a couple times over the summer, about fishing or whatever it might be, and right away I knew it was still going to be a good spot for me."
Zech's certainty about attending Stevens Point was a sentiment shared by the nine other newcomers as all ten of their names were known publicly prior to Brooks' departure -- and all ten stuck with their commitments despite the fact many were relatively unfamiliar with Krueger.
The end result was a new-look lineup that remained incredibly productive, thanks in large part to the newcomers as five currently rank among the top ten scorers on the team while two have logged significant minutes on defense. Earlier this week, Krueger pointed to the leadership of Beauvais and the other upperclassmen, especially in the first half of the season, as a key factor in the rapid development and acclimatization of the first-years, all of which helped lead to another 20-win season and NCAA tournament run.
"We've still got a lot of guys who have been far in the tournament and played in big games so we wanted to bring that experience into this year," Beauvais said. "All these (new) guys came in and have been contributing and playing big minutes and they really just fell right into the swing of things. It made the job on the upperclassmen a little bit easier -- and I really think everyone has stepped up."
It certainly appears Beauvais' assessment is on the mark as though the Pointers indeed feature plenty of new faces on the ice and on the bench, they nonetheless landed back in a rather familiar place: Lake Placid for another Frozen Four.