War on I-4: Who’s No. 1 on Ice in Florida?
By Michael Maharrey

In Florida, football is king. The University of Florida, Florida State and Miami are all perennial powers. The state is a hotbed for college recruiting and the Gators are playing for the national championship.

Given that, one would expect the rivalry between the University of Central Florida Knights and the University of South Florida Bulls, separated by a mere 75-mile stretch of I-4, to be a gridiron battle. This Sunshine State rivalry is not being played out on a grassy field, but on a sheet of ice.This war on I-4 is all about hockey.

USF and UCF are quietly emerging as powers in the American Collegiate Hockey Association’s Division III South Region. Both went into December flying under the radar and hoping to make a statement.

Ranked eighth in the region with only two losses, the Ice Bulls’ relatively weak schedule left many doubting they were a true contender. The Bulls put those doubts to rest the first weekend in December in Atlanta, easily beating Clemson and Middle Tennessee State and narrowly losing to third-ranked Kennesaw State. The Bulls outplayed KSU at even strength and were up by two goals in the third period, but saw the Owls score three goals during a five-minute power play.

The unranked Knights entered December with six losses, but their record was not indicative of their strength. Three of those losses came against Division II power Florida Gulf Coast; the others came at the hands of Kennesaw State and fourth-ranked Georgia Tech.

The Knights ended November with a strong win over Colorado and then pummeled the Florida Gators 11-0 the first weekend in December.
This set up two crucial games between the Bulls and Knights on Dec. 8 and 9. Both were hoping to establish themselves as the top ACHA Division III team in Florida and position themselves to move up in the rankings.

Central Florida coach Geoff Neild said his team definitely went into the match-up with something to prove. “When you looked at our record, it was not that great, but the ranking committees don’t always take into account strength of schedule,” he said.
The Knights certainly made their point in the first game against the Bulls. Central Florida dominated on its home ice, blowing the game open with a six-goal third period and winning 8-1. USF was out-shot, out-skated and physically manhandled by the Knights. The Bulls looked nothing like the team that had nearly beat regional powerhouse Kennesaw State the weekend before.

It was quite a comedown for the Bulls from the high of their Atlanta trip. “For probably the first time, I’m speechless,” said Bulls defensive coach Kevin Castine after the game.The following night, the Bulls made a point of their own. They turned the tables on the Knights, winning 4-2 with a much stronger effort.  South Florida captain Sean Williams felt his team came into the first game overconfident but regained its focus for the second game. “The boys came ready to play,” he said.
It seems overconfidence might have been contagious. “Saturday night, we came in overconfident. We got behind and couldn’t come back,” said Neild. “We got flat out beat.”

Although the top Division III team in Florida is still a matter for debate, the Knights and Bulls both caught the attention of the ranking committee. USF moved up to sixth in the south and UCF is right behind them at number seven. Both teams are hoping to settle the matter of who is tops in the Sunshine State at the regional ranking tournament in February. More important, both are aiming at a national title. “A national championship has been our goal from the beginning of the season,” said Ice Bulls coach Jay Jodoin. “But, we just have to take it one game…one shift at a time.”
The top eight teams in the region will be invited to the regional tournament and the top four from that tournament will make nationals.

Regardless of who comes out on top, The Bulls and Knights are proving Florida can produce competitive college hockey teams. Their success is even more impressive considering that the majority of the players on both rosters are from Florida, including South Florida point leader Connor Lyons. “There are some strong developmental hockey programs in the state, especially in the Tampa area,” said Neild.
Success on the ice has lead to growing fan support at both schools. The Knights are averaging 300 to 400 fans a game and South Florida has averaged more than 500. “We really appreciate the fans coming out on a Friday or Saturday night,” said Neild. “I’m sure they have plenty of other things they could be doing.”

Jodoin had similar praise for Bulls fans. “They are a big part of our success,” he said.After the semester break, both teams will gear up for what they hope will be a strong finish to the season. “I am confident about the next semester going in,” said Jodoin. Neild was also optimistic. “We have a lot of great talent. It’s a matter of getting them to play in our system.

No matter who comes out on top, UCF and USF have already succeeded in proving that Florida hockey is for real and both teams believe they have a shot at making the national tournament.Jodoin summed it up nicely for both teams. “If we stay positive both on and off the ice, I believe we will go a long way.”

 

 


 
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