Georgia Institute of Technology
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The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets ice hockey club is the oldest continuously operating college ice hockey program in the South. The club was established in 1973, spurred on by the arrival of the NHL Atlanta Flames. The club faced many challenges, including limited financial resources, the lack of ice facilities to play and practice and no organized competition in the area. According to Mike Murphy, the principal founder and first team president, the club almost didn’t get started because the Athletic Association was not interested in sponsoring ice hockey as a sport, the Student Athletic Council had virtually no money and the student council balked at making a $4,000 loan to a student organization because of the precedent it would set. The controversy was settled when the team compromised on a $2,500 grant to fund club operations. Murphy says the credit goes to all the members of the initial team and those who followed who put up with 1 to 3 a.m. practices, long Friday night car trips to play games in Knoxville and Charlotte, and paying most of their own expenses to participate in a sport that was foreign to the South and Georgia Tech.
By the late 1980’s, the program was floundering. The Jackets were a part of the Southern Collegiate Hockey Association (SCHA), predominately composed of teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and the Southeastern Conference (SEC). The team’s lone successful season was 1988-89 when Tech won the SCHA Championship.
Midway through the 1989-90 season, the Georgia Tech hockey coach fled the state, pursued by authorities for felony battery. His replacement the following season lasted only two games. Ironically, these events were the catalyst that led to the emergence of Georgia Tech hockey as a premier collegiate program.
During the summer of 1991, the team’s treasurer received a phone call from Greg Stathis, who was interested in learning more about coaching the Tech hockey team. Over chili dogs and beer at Dirty Al’s Saloon, Team President Rob McConnell and Joe Slater met with Stathis and discussed what they were looking for in a coach. They were also very candid with their prospective leader. They explained that even though the team received a fair amount of funding from the Institute, they had been told unequivocally that there was no hope for achieving varsity status due to Title 9 and insurance reasons. At the time, the team was also barred from using any of the Athletic Department’s trade marks. Stathis was also told that team participation on road trips was always sketchy; the previous season only seven players made the trip to play Virginia Tech. Game times were also ridiculous with 2am face-offs in cities like Lexington and Tampa. In addition to all that, the team had no financial means to pay him a salary or cover his travel costs on road trips.
Stathis accepted the challenge and began his tenure as Head Coach at the start of the 1991-92 season. He was determined to make the Georgia Tech Hockey Club into a program that would become a model for other collegiate hockey clubs regionally and nationally. It didn’t happen overnight but by the 1995-96 season the Jackets skated to a 15-1 record.
The team overcame many obstacles during the early Stathis years. Practice and game times were often after midnight, which meant the fan base was virtually non-existent. Despite the odds, Stathis continued to instill pride and motivation in his players along with the importance of representing the school with a quality product. Stathis began a concerted effort to reach out to the student body and the Atlanta community to promote the team. His efforts paid off when more than 2000 fans jammed into the old Parkaire Ice Arena off Johnson Ferry Road for opening night, October 9, 1996 (which just happened to the Coach’s 37th birthday). Buzz, the Georgia Tech mascot, made his first appearance at a hockey game and the team sold its first printed programs which contained advertisements from corporate sponsors. The Jackets finished in 4th place during the 1996-97 season but upset their in-state rival Georgia during the SCHA playoffs to win the championship before a crowd of over 2500 fans.
With the SCHA on shaky ground financially, Stathis was the driving force that created College Hockey South (CHS), which boasted 12 teams across the Southeast, many of which were already ACC rival schools. Stathis was also instrumental with the organization of what is now known as the Savannah Hockey Classic, the annual college tournament played in Savannah each January. Georgia Tech won the inaugural tournament in 1999.
By the close of the 20th century, the team had increased their sales of team memorabilia, corporate sponsorships and school funding to the tune of $50,000.00. The team won 32 games during the 1999-2000 season and went on to capture the CHS Championship. The American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) invited the Jackets to its first ACHA Division 3 championship tournament at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Tech opened the tournament by defeating the Navy team 3-2 in route to a second place tournament finish.
Stathis coached the Jackets for 17 seasons before his untimely death in 2008 at the age of 49, reportedly from complications following his second kidney transplant. He coached the Jackets to 348 victories with a winning percentage of .742. Between 1999 and 2003, Tech amassed a 104-10-2 record, won two CHS Championships and was runner up in the ACHA Division 3 tournament. He also had a remarkable record in that every one of his players graduated during his tenure as head coach.
Dan Hazlett, Assistant Director of Campus Recreation said “Greg Stathis has done more to promote Club Sports at Georgia Tech than all of the other clubs combined.”
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After Stathis’ sudden death in 2008, the Yellow Jackets’ performance on the ice suffered. Under Head Coach Brian McSparron, the team saw some early success but failed to make it to the D-III national tournament for the next nine seasons. Their main claim to fame was winning three of the next four Savannah Tire hockey tournament titles. From 2014 to 2017, they compiled records of 10-13-0-0, 7-11-0-0 and 4-17-2-0 respectively.
After McSparron left the team in 2015, Bob Cernich, who coached an Atlanta team to a USA Hockey’s 14-under national championship, took over as Head Coach of the Jackets. Despite never actually playing the game, Cernich was a USA Hockey Level Four-certified coach who happened to have two sons, Zach and Cael, on the Tech team.
Individuals close to the team listed a litany of reasons why the team did not enjoy much success after the Stathis years: fewer quality players trying out, injuries, internships, graduations, academic ineligibility and McSparron’s departure. Some of the better players even decided to leave the squad so they could focus on academics rather than endure the embarrassment of the lopsided scores. Another problem: Tech’s higher academic requirements for admission, which reportedly drove hockey talent away, often to rival schools.
The Jackets finished the 2016-17 season with wins over Florida State and Clemson, capturing the ACC title. The publicity that came with it helped get the team noticed around campus. Like many schools that field club hockey teams, many students didn’t even realize that there was a hockey team. During the off-season, the newly elected board that oversees the administration of the team discovered that there were around fifty students on campus with previous hockey experience.
The 2017-18 season was a breakthrough year for the program. After winning the ACC-South Challenge in February, the Jackets concluded their regular season by splitting home and home games with rival Kennesaw State University. Their 4-2 victory on Friday, largely credited to an outstanding performance by Tech goaltender Caleb Rudnicki, extended their winning streak to nine consecutive games. On Saturday, KSU secured a narrow 4-3 victory over the Jackets on Senior Night, the only loss in the second half of their season, finishing 18-4-1-1.
The team advanced through the ACHA South Regional Tournament near Tampa, Florida to earn a trip to the ACHA Men's D-III National Tournament in Columbus, Ohio. While the team went winless in their first national’s appearance since the passing of Greg Stathis, the players and coaches came away from the experience with the realization that the Jackets can compete with northern teams. “Being a team from the south who practices once per week, I was actually surprised at the way we were able to compete against the outstanding competition we faced,” coach Bob Cernich was quoted as saying.
During the off-season, Tech announced the addition of New Jersey native Craig Terranova as goaltending coach to work with Junior Caleb Rudnicki and Sophomore Ben Mangel. Following their 13-5-2-2 record in the 2018-19 regular season, which included capturing the Thrasher Cup in Savannah, the Yellow Jackets were named the 7th seed in the ACHA D-III South Region, earning them a spot at the 2019 Region Tournament in Huntsville. A return to the nationals, however, was not in the cards for the Jackets.
The Jackets joined the South Eastern Collegiate Hockey Conference (SECHC) prior to the start of the 2019-20 season and put together a respectable 14-7-4-0 record before COVID shut down the playoffs. Senior goaltender Ben Mangel finished the season with a goals against average of 2.05. The 2019-20 Roland Sperlich MVP Award was awarded to Cael Cernich, the 2019-20 Michael Zaucha Academic Leadership Award went to Matthew Connelly and the 2019-20 Greg Stathis Man of the Year award was presented to Matthew Jones.
In June, the team announced it was parting ways with Head Coach Bob Cernich, who had served for the past five years. Assistant Coach Colin Roberts was promoted to the role of head coach. Prior to the start of the 2020-21 season, the team elected to support the SECHC’s decision to switch their league affiliation from the ACHA to the Collegiate Hockey Federation (CHF). Again due to COVID, the SECHC announced the start of the 2020-21 season was delayed until at least January. City officials in Savannah cancelled the annual Savannah Hockey Classic. A shortened spring season followed but the season was pretty much a bust.
In 2021-22, the SECHC was re-branded as College Hockey South. Member teams competed in one division to assist teams coming back from COVID restrictions. Tech was the #4 seed going into the CHS Playoffs but had to settle for a fifth-place finish after losing to Alabama in the first round.
In March 2022, four members of the squad were named to the All-College Hockey South team: Matt Connelly, Colin Fessler and Earl Gretzinger were named to the All-CHS 1st team and Garrett Schueller was named to the 3rd team. Tech also secured a spot in the 2022 Federation Cup playoffs held in West Chester, Pennsylvania. The team went 3-0 in pool play and advanced to the Elite 8 of the CHF Fed Cup, before being knocked out by South Carolina. Their final overall record for the season was 22-12-0.
The 2021-22 Greg Stathis Man of the Year award was given to Min Kim and the 2021-22 BJ Stapleton Award recipient was Garrett Schueller. The 2021-22 Michael Zaucha Academic Leadership Award went to Dr. Brandon Holt. The 2021-22 Roland Sperlich MVP Award winner and Shawn Montague Award went to Matthew Connelly after he had a record-breaking season with 40 goals, eclipsing the all-time single season scoring record in team history.