Penn State hockey coach Guy Gadowsky really hasn’t been setting lofty goals for his team the past few seasons.
The only goals for his program’s first five years at the Division I level were to simply build a good foundation, and establish an identity that the hockey world and recruits would recognize.
Unlike many teams on the Penn State campus, like wrestling or soccer or volleyball, they didn’t start the season saying they wanted to hoist a Big Ten or national championship trophy. Gadowsky instead said he had a checklist of things to accomplish, like winning a game in the conference tournament.
So after the expectation-defying season the Nittany Lions just put together — with a Big Ten tournament title and a 10-3 win in the opening round of the NCAA tournament — how many items are left remaining on Gadowsky’s to-do list?
“There’s not very many anymore, which is nice to see,” Gadowsky said Tuesday as the team wrapped up a 25-12-2 season, losing 6-3 in the NCAA regional finals to No. 1 Denver. “This experience has made us hungry to want to learn more and get better.”
No matter how much of an optimist he might be, how much he believed in his team, neither Gadowsky nor most close to the program could really, honestly, say they saw that season coming. There were way too many question marks last September.
The goaltender they were counting on to be the No. 1 guy this season, Eamon McAdam, turned pro a year early. It left a freshman in Peyton Jones and sophomore Chris Funkey to battle for the job. Jones had a decent resume coming to campus, but there were no guarantees he would be able to make the transition fast enough.
“I remember being very, very nervous after Eamon signed,” Gadowsky said. “We had no idea. Now we have a very good idea. We feel very good about that position, for sure.”
That was not the only uncertainty.
In all, 39 percent of the roster was freshmen, and they would be expected to carry a heavy load both defensively and offensively. Still, the defense remained solid and allowed the offense to play up-tempo, to pepper the opposing goalie with shots and look for rebounds.
When that offense was going full throttle, it would be hard to find a more exciting team to watch anywhere in the nation. At no time did it look better than last Saturday in a stunning 10-3 NCAA first-round win against Union.
“I loved it,” Gadowsky said. “It was a little bit validating.”
So now, if they wanted to, the Nittany Lions can start making goals like the other Nittany Lion teams on campus and dream the big dreams.
They’ve seen life as a top-10 team, and they are a contender. Now it’s not about big building blocks, but little pieces to complete the process. It’s not about learning what works to create something new, but learning about what can make it the best it can possibly be.
“For us to have the success we want to have, we have to improve,” Gadowsky said. “It’s an exciting time. We’re really looking forward to that.”
Over the coming weeks, there will be talks with each player individually, then a lot of staff meetings going over each and every detail. There are still places to be better if they want to beat teams like Denver.
“We’re going to use this as motivation,” junior defenseman Trevor Hamilton said. “Hopefully end up where we were this year, next year, but obviously take one more step — make it to the Frozen Four.”
But these Nittany Lions can also look back on the 2016-17 season with pride. They certainly accomplished a lot for a team that doesn’t really set goals.
“It was a crazy year this year to get as far as we did,” said sophomore Andrew Sturtz, who led the team with 22 goals. “It was an absolute blast doing it.”