Norwich’s TJ Dockery makes a save in front of Cadets goalie Tom Aubrun during the second period of their NEHC Tournament semifinal men’s hockey game in Northfield in February.

NORTHFIELD — It’s clear Norwich junior TJ Dockery had a lot of fun this past men’s hockey season.

The Cadets may have fallen in the D-III championship match against Wisconsin-Stevens Point, but Dockery and NU coach Cam Ellsworth put a positive spin on the season and its final game.

“There was a point during the run that we just had this overwhelming belief in each other,” Dockery said. “There was no panic or jitters — we knew we could overcome anyone. It reminded me of my freshman season. We were playing not for ourselves, but for each other. I think we all felt that way and it allowed us to gel as a group and to have a great season.”

After posting a 6-4-1 record before the Christmas break, Norwich was not a team expected to contend for a national championship. And then the Cadets ripped off 18 straight victories to thrust themselves back into the spotlight. Even when they were down by two goals late in the title game of the NCAA Division III Frozen Four, they never considered the game to be over.

Wisconsin-Stevens Point pieced together a magical undefeated season on its way to a national crown, but the Cadets nearly pulled off a stunning come-from-behind victory in the game’s third period. A pair of late goals from Norwich sophomore Coby Downs sent the game into overtime against the heavily favored Pointers. And while Norwich eventually lost, both Dockery and Ellsworth maintain that the team was just a bounce away from the school’s fifth national championship.

“We’ve all gone over it numerous times in our heads,” Ellsworth said. “We had a couple of good chances to win, but you can’t take anything away from Wisconsin-Stevens Point. They had a great season.”

The top-ranked Pointers finished the season with a record of 29-0-2, becoming the first Division III team to cap an undefeated campaign.

The inconsistency that plagued the Cadets early in the season made their run to the championship all the more improbable. At the start of the season, Norwich was not even picked to finish at the top of the league, let alone contend for a title.

“In preseason polls, people had us finishing in the middle of the pack,” Ellsworth said.

It’s difficult to identify exactly when the turning point occurred for Norwich, and Ellsworth can’t point to just one game. He and Dockery casually deflect praise to the group of talented freshmen and sophomores that make up the team, and to how their accelerated development and understanding of the game turned the Cadets into a late-season juggernaut.

Ellsworth explained that instead of just telling his players what to do, he allowed them to ask and answer many of their own questions as the season progressed. It’s a departure from the old-school mentality where the coach coaches and the players play.

That little bit of flexibility encouraged personal development and athletic improvement for Norwich’s players. According to Ellsworth, involving his players in some of the decision-making processes increased their investment in the game on the ice.

Dockery was happy to see a team-wide willingness to try new approaches and consider different techniques. As the season progressed, he noticed a few of his teammates stepping up and standing out.

“Take someone like Sam DiBitetto, who maybe wasn’t getting a lot of ice time early on, and then after Christmas break scored a couple of big goals” Dockery said. “It was huge. It was such a team effort with everything that we did. Maxime Borduas was lights out this whole year. And then that carried over to our senior captain Dave (Robertson), who ended up being the best captain of any team I’ve ever played with.

“We weren’t just a bunch of guys out there playing hockey — we were playing the game for each other.”

With the season in the books, things continue to look good for the Cadets moving forward. Ellsworth, in his inaugural campaign as coach, proved his feet were big enough to fill former coach Mike McShane’s well-worn shoes. The team also graduates just two seniors in Robertson and Stowe native Cam Beecy, so there should be plenty of incentive for returning players to make another title run next winter.

One thing is for sure: If you’re a Cadet hockey fan, you saw a season to remember this winter.

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