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National Power: Cougars hockey headed for ACHA Div. III championships

The little-known Cougars play for a national title

Posted: March 4, 2009 1:39 a.m.
Updated: March 4, 2009 4:55 a.m.

The College of the Canyons hockey team practices Thursday evening at Ice Station Valencia.

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Unbeknownst to many outside of the Southern California hockey scene, College of the Canyons has put together a consistently successful hockey team in only nine years of existence.

After clinching the Pacific Collegiate Hockey Association title with a win over the region’s top-ranked team, Northern Arizona University, Feb. 21, the COC hockey team will be playing in the American Collegiate Hockey Association’s Division III National Championships in Rochester, N.Y., beginning today.

Although the Cougars are a club team, they have been a significant presence in the club hockey landscape since their first season nine years ago, drawing local talent from youth programs at Ice Station Valencia and other Los Angeles area rinks.

Jim Schrage, COC’s dean of physical plant and facilities planning, and head coach John Taferner started the program when they saw local, talented players stray away from school.

“We saw a lot of good kids who didn’t even think about college just start to become hockey bums,” Schrage said. “We gave them an opportunity to play and make them take 12 units and keep up a 2.0 GPA. We try to use hockey to get them to transfer (to a university).”

The program caught on quickly and has left its mark on local club college hockey, advancing to four national tournaments since 2003.

COC, one of only five community college teams in the ACHA Division III’s 122 total teams, benefits from having a rink just miles away from campus, and a thriving youth development program at Ice Station.

Members of the PCHA since its inception, COC won its second PCHA title this year and first since 2004.

The Cougars’ competition in the PCHA includes different teams from year to year, along with league regular California State University, Northridge.

This season the PCHA consisted of COC, CSUN, Northern Arizona, UC Irvine, UC San Diego, Fresno State, Sacramento State, Santa Clara and UC Davis.

In past seasons, the PCHA has featured Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State, Moorpark College, Pepperdine, San Diego State, San Jose State, and the University of Redlands.

Early in PCHA history, members included USC, UCLA and Stanford, all of which now play in the PAC-8 hockey conference, under ACHA Division II classification.

The Cougars (17-4) as the third seed, clinched the PCHA title with an 8-1 win over top-seeded Northern Arizona in the final on Feb. 21 in Fresno. They advanced to the championship game with a 4-2 win over host Fresno State on Feb. 20.

“We out-skated them and everybody contributed,” Taferner said. “(Northern Arizona) has a reputation for playing a lot of home games and taking advantage of the high altitude.”

This season’s success is quite a turnaround from last season, when the Cougars finished 1-13, often highlighted by blowout scores and brawls.

“Other programs would have folded, but we stuck it out,” said Taferner. “Our kids are committed to winning.”

Although the PCHA title is important, the Cougars punched their ticket to Rochester the weekend before at the ACHA Pacific Regional, held in Sioux Center, Iowa. COC went undefeated at the tournament, defeating South Dakota State and Air Force 5-0 and 5-3 respectively.

“We went (to regionals) to have fun,” said freshman forward Anthony Goldner. “We knew we were good enough to do it. We just tried not to worry about it.”

The Cougars head to nationals as the Pacific Region’s fourth-ranked team and enter the tournament unseeded. They will open the tournament against fourth-seeded Albany University today.

The Great Danes (20-3) are the unanimous top-ranked team in the Atlantic Region and their campus sits only 220 miles east of Rochester, possibly providing a substantial home-ice advantage.

“We’re pretty confident,” Scharge said. “We’ve seen (Albany) play before and we stack up pretty well against them. We’ve seen some tough teams this year. Our kids are up to it.”

Northern Arizona is the tournament’s top seed and faces off against Penn State-Brandywine, also today.

The remaining teams in the tournament include: Saginaw Valley State (Michigan), Central Florida, Georgia Tech, Grand Valley State (Michigan), Florida Gulf Coast, Delta Community College, Dordt College (Iowa), Fredonia State (New York), Hope College (Michigan), Tennessee, Farmingdale State (New York) and Colorado.

Forward Billy Knights leads COC in points with 18 goals and 16 assists, but the Cougars’ main scoring threat is Tyler Gilmore, who leads the team with 19 goals, despite playing in only nine games.

Gilmore’s brother, P.J. Gilmore, has also made a considerable impact on the team in limited action, with seven goals and seven assists in only six games.

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