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Clemson ice hockey to make second consecutive Nationals appearance

Katie Bradham
Will Van Sicklin reaches for the puck during Clemson’s game against South Carolina on Feb. 24 at Bon Secours Wellness Arena.

The Clemson club ice hockey team is about to add yet another feather to this historic season’s cap, as next week, the Tigers will travel to West Chester, Pennsylvania, for the club’s second consecutive — and ever — AAU National Tournament appearance.

Starting on Friday, Clemson will take on No. 5 Bishop’s Gaiters, followed by the No. 6 Liberty Flames on Saturday. The Tigers will then cap off the weekend with a match against No. 16 Vanderbilt on Sunday, March 10.

Last season, Clemson barely clawed its way into the 32-team tournament as the No. 31 seed but went on to upset two of three teams in its pool during the opening round. After falling to No. 2 Niagara in its first-ever Nationals contest, the Tigers defeated No. 15 Penn State Harrisburg and No. 23 Fredonia State.

After the team’s performance in the tournament last season and its recent “Cinderella run” in the College Hockey South DII playoffs, the No. 11 Tigers have caught the league’s attention. While the AAU Tournament included 32 teams last season, this season’s show is more exclusive, as only 20 Division II teams made the cut.

After impressing everyone — team members included — in the tournament last season, earning a spot again this season was one of the Tigers’ biggest sources of motivation from day one.

“We all feel like we can make a serious run in Nationals this year, and we didn’t get the respect we deserved in the National rankings last year,” forward Tommy Papa told The Tiger ahead of Clemson’s matchup with Florida State earlier this season.

“Some of our biggest rivals got moved up to DI, so us not being moved up with them, we definitely feel like we have something to prove.”

The highest seed in Clemson’s pool belongs to the Bishop University Gaiters (7-7-1). The Gaiters, based in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada, compete in the New England Independent Hockey Conference (NEIHC) alongside schools such as Stonehill College, Anna Maria College and Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

The Liberty University Flames (13-5-0) compete in the Atlantic Coast Conference Hockey League (ACCHL) and are one of Clemson’s biggest competitors. This season, the Flames and the Tigers shared two opponents: the South Carolina Gamecocks and the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers.

Last weekend, Clemson fell short to South Carolina, 5-3, for the third time during the 2023-2024 campaign. In September, Liberty split its series with the Gamecocks, taking home a 4-2 win in the first game but suffering a 5-2 loss the following day.

Similarly, the Flames split their series with Coastal Carolina two weeks ago, defeating the Chanticleers, 5-4, on Feb. 9 and falling short, 4-3, the next day. Ironically, Clemson swept Coastal Carolina, 6-3 and 3-2, the same weekend in September that Liberty split with South Carolina.

Clemson will rematch Vanderbilt to close out pool play — a team, in hindsight, it ought to have been concerned about — considering the Commodores defeated the Tigers 6-1 and 3-0 to begin the spring semester.

According to the AAU, the winners of each pool will be determined by points and standard tiebreakers. Those tiebreakers will include, among other statistics, wins, points, goals against, goal differential, goals for, least penalties and fastest goal scored. The winners of each pool will advance to the National Championship semi-final after the pool play round.

Additionally, the AAU has outlined that the National Semi-Final will feature a field of four teams that are the winners of their respective pools. Teams will be re-seeded by the Final National Ranking and compete in single-game elimination, with the two winners advancing to the AAU College Hockey National Championship Game.

Unlike last season, Clemson is no longer the underdog, and there are high expectations for the Tigers to perform well. The team has repeatedly risen to the occasion this season and will look to do it once more to solidify this season as historic.

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About the Contributors
Kelly Kaelblein, Asst. Sports Editor
Katie Bradham, Senior Videographer
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