Coach Blaise MacDonald led Niagara University to its first NCAA Division I tournament berth in 2000, when he was the runner-up to St. Lawrence University’s Joe Marsh in the balloting for the Spencer Penrose Award given to the nation’s top Division I coach.
In some ways, history is repeating itself this season.
MacDonald, the head coach at Colby College in Waterville, has guided the Mules to their first appearance in the Division III Frozen Four. He also received the Eddie Jeremiah Award presented to the division’s top coach on Thursday night.
Colby (17-10-2) plays St. Norbert College (25-4-1) in Friday’s 6:30 p.m. semifinal at the Herb Brooks Ice Arena in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Salve Regina (21-5-2) meets Wisconsin-Stevens Point (21-5-3) in the 3 p.m. semifinal. The championship game is Saturday at 7 p.m.
MacDonald, who has won national ice hockey championships as both a player at Rochester Institute of Technology and as an assistant coach at Boston University, is relishing his experience at Colby.
“This is so much more rewarding on a lot of levels,” said the 54-year-old MacDonald, who spent 10 seasons as the head coach at Division I UMass Lowell. “The players come here for a reason and not the season. They come here to get a world-class education. Their hockey careers often end after their senior year.
“Their passion and their purpose is to represent their teammates and their school, not to try to endear themselves to (National Hockey League) general managers and scouts and to agents,” he added. “This has a much different feel to it.”
MacDonald said that because Division III players don’t leave school early to sign pro contracts, “you’re able to develop kids over time here. You also develop relationships which I really enjoy.”
Cam MacDonald, one of Blaise and Carol MacDonald’s four children, is a senior left wing who is the Mules’ leading goal scorer with 15.
“He is getting a great Colby education and is having a great senior year. As a parent, I couldn’t be more blessed,” said MacDonald, who explained the outpouring of support from the school and Waterville community has been humbling.
Colby’s march to the Frozen Four seemed improbable after the Mules lost for the sixth time in seven games on Jan. 19. But they went 5-2-2 to close out the regular season and annexed the New England Small College Athletic Conference title with wins over Amherst (5-1), Wesleyan (5-1) and 2017 national finalist Trinity (4-1).
They followed that with road victories over the University of New England of Biddeford (4-2) and Geneseo (2-1) in the NCAA tourney.
“We changed a couple of tactical systems and the players really started to get after it in practice. We’ve had only two bad practices over the past two months,” said MacDonald, who compiled three 20-win seasons at UMass Lowell after spending four years at Niagara.
The Billerica, Massachusetts, native and former All-American defenseman and two-time NCAA Division II national champion at RIT, who served as an assistant coach at Dartmouth, Princeton, UMass Lowell and Boston University, said his players have developed a businesslike attitude.
Colby has outscored opponents 23-6 during their six-game winning streak, including the five playoff wins.
Senior goalie Sean Lawrence has posted a miniscule 1.00 goals-against average and a .973 save percentage during that stretch.
“It hasn’t been just about him stopping the puck or his numbers, it has also been his presence, his attitude, his demeanor. He has really given us a lot of consistency,” said MacDonald.
The Mules have received balanced scoring in the playoffs. Ten players have scored at least one postseason goal and 17 players have at least one point.
“It has been all hands on deck,” said MacDonald.
Freshman right wing Justin Grillo has been the top scorer in the playoffs with two goals and four assists. His goal with 1.6 seconds left gave Colby its win over Geneseo.
Cam MacDonald and freshman center Spencer Hewson each have three goals and two assists in the playoffs and two of Hewson’s goals were game-winners. Sophomore left wing Kienan Scott has three goals while three other players also have two goals apiece: Senior left wing Phil Klitirinos, senior right wing Mario Benicky and senior center Michael Rudolf.
Klitirinos and Rudolf also have two assists apiece and Benicky has one. Senior defenseman Andrew Reis has logged four assists as has senior center Nick O’Connor.
The top overall scorers are Scott (11 goals, 15 assists), Klitirinos (8 & 18), MacDonald (15 & 10) and O’Connor (11 & 13). Lawrence is 16-7-2 with a 2.01 GAA and a .941 save percentage overall.
Colby’s next opponent, St. Norbert, has won four national championships in the last 10 years and is riding a 10-game winning streak.
MacDonald said St. Norbert has an excellent track record in the tournament but added that the team that wins at this stage is the one that “plays connected and executes.”
Colby Athletic Director Jake Olkkola said MacDonald has one of the top coaching minds in the country.
“This season has been special in so many ways and I am thrilled to see his efforts recognized on a national level,” Olkkola said in a news release.
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