Cornell Left Wondering What Could've Been
by Joshua Seguin/Staff Writer
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. Union entered the Olympic Center in Lake Placid knowing it was going to the NCAA tournament. Cornell didn't have the same luxury, and it left itself with the unenviable task of having to defeat the Dutchmen to do it.
In the end, it was another once-promising season for Cornell that was left without an NCAA bid after a 5-2 defeat at the hands of Union. But the real killer loss was last week, when Cornell took three games to defeat Clarkson in the playoffs.
But as much as Cornell is disappointed in a season that could've been, coach Mike Schafer believes that it's more a sign of how far the league as a whole has come from the days that Cornell dominated in the mid-2000s.
“Our league is so tough,” said Schafer. “I would sit up here with the media two or three years ago and there would be a lot of doubters in this room. I think this league is one of the best, if not the best, in the country. Now I can look and you can say that with a great deal of pride.
"Our league is outstanding. You look at the teams, Colgate, Quinnipiac, ourselves and Clarkson. What if we would have beat UMass (a game that was postponed) or what if we had beat Clarkson in Game 2 of that series. These guys competed hard all year long. They fought and clawed all year long. We are in the best league in the country. I am pretty confident; if we had made the tournament we would have done some damage.”
Of course, Schafer did not absolve himself from the responsibility, too. His team's slow start, falling behind 2-0, made it a big hole to climb out of against a team like Union. And he put the blame on his own shoulders.
"We didn't play very well in the first 10 minutes of the game," Schafer said. "And I think, as a coach, you've gotta take responsibility for that. Look back at yourself and see what things you could've done differently, and how we should've prepared for the game differently. For me, you look back and have your athletes better prepared technically.
"We gave up two 4-on-2s in the first 10 minutes of the game."
The Big Red twice came within a goal in the second period only to see Union come right back seconds later to regain its two-goal lead. As luck and play would have it, Cornell would never get closer than the two, after that.
The defeat will ultimately be the finishing blow on a relatively inconsistent season that had its ups and its downs, which included another tough loss to Boston University at Madison Square Garden, a game it heavily outshot the Terriers back in November.
“I liked the way our guys battled back in the game,” Schafer said. “We were down 2-0 in the game, we came back made it 2-1. This team kept fighting all year long and I am extremely proud of the players. They have had that mentality all year long.”
“We laid it all out there on the ice, every one of us in that locker room,” senior goaltender Andy Iles said. "It is tough to swallow but it is part of the game.”
Still, it's hard not to feel like a year of great opportunity has slipped by. Assuming all of the juniors come back, the Big Red should have a contending team next year, but most assumed that esteemed blue-chip class was ready for big things this year.
Cornell had the usual assortment of big forwards, gritty play and had a consistent, experienced goaltender in Iles. Yes, it struggled with possession and getting shots for much of the season, and losing first-line senior center Dustin Mowrey to injury was a big blow. But the talent was there to get to the tournament.
“We had a really talented team this year,” said sophomore forward Christian Hillbrich, a player who came as far as anyone for the Big Red this year, but missed his linemate, Mowrey, down the stretch. “Coming short here at the end of the year was tough. We had some great takeaways from this year; we won the Ivy League and we won the Florida College Classic. There is a lot to build on for next year and I think we can come back stronger.”
“I think if we got into the tournament we would have done some damage,” said Iles. “We could have done some special things. But that’s what the regular season is for and that’s what the playoffs are for. Unfortunately we didn't earn our spot and you know it’s really disappointing. But I am proud of every single guy in that locker room.”
Cornell has now missed the NCAA tournament two consecutive seasons for only the second time since 2001. Cornell's entrance into the ECAC final four was its eighth time in the last 10 years. Just making it wasn't enough for Cornell to continue its season. It knew it needed a win in this one.
One of the things that Cornell has had in the past four seasons is consistent goaltending. Iles has been a warrior for the Big Red. In his career, the senior, has played in 118 games in his career and has made 2990 saves, which is good for the most in the storied history of Cornell hockey.
“Andy Iles has been outstanding for us,” said Schafer. “He has done a tremendous job for us. I am very proud as a coach on what he has accomplished.”
Iles is one of 10 national finalists for the Senior Class Award. The award is presented to a player that has notable achievements in four areas of excellence — community, classroom, character and competition. Iles was true in all areas and has achieved a lot in his four years as Cornell.
Replacing him will obviously be the biggest issue for Cornell, but it believes it has the players in the pipeline to do it.
“It is what we love to do right?" Iles said of his last game. “We love to put on the Cornell jersey, we love to play hockey and that is why we come to this institution. For every one it is just an amazing experience. For myself it has been an amazing experience all four years. I have been so thankful to put on the Cornell jersey.”
For this season, Cornell will be sitting at home watching the NCAA tournament, a second year in a row thinking of what could have been.