MANJU SHIVACHARAN/THE STATESMAN

The Stony Brook Club Ice Hockey team won the ESCHL title for the fourth year in a row by beating Lebanon Valley, 4-1, on Sunday. MANJU SHIVACHARAN/THE STATESMAN

There’s always next year.

It is an optimist’s sentiment, albeit one that the Stony Brook Club Ice Hockey team had no interest in one year ago in Cleveland, when the horn sounded on the American Collegiate Hockey Association National Championship game. Head coach Chris Garofalo’s bunch had just been clobbered, 4-0, on the league’s biggest stage.

In the distance, Central Oklahoma rejoiced. The Bronchos threw their gloves in the air, hugged in celebration and hoisted the Murdoch Cup — the first in the school’s history. The players had realized their dream, having ascended to the highest mark on the club hockey scene.

In the foreground, Stony Brook bowed its heads. The Seawolves had just completed the best season in club history, reaching the championship game for the first time, but that was the last thing on their minds. There was nothing but frustration for a team that bemoaned about missing the chance of a lifetime.

The day before, Stony Brook had slain the tournament’s Goliath, top-seeded Arizona State, in a shocking 2-1 victory for the Seawolves. It was a memorable upset, but one that took a toll on the body.

“I’d never seen 60 minutes of hockey played that hard,” then-senior Brendan Jones, the team’s starting goaltender last season, said. “I could barely lift my head up, I was so tired. Everybody was so tired. There was utter silence in the locker room afterward because literally nobody could even speak.”

In the championship game, the fatigue was clear. As Jones put it, the team was “skating in quicksand.” The effort was there, but their legs were not.

“I had never seen a team try so hard and not get any results out of it,” Jones recalled. “It was so weird. I would watch [Stony Brook’s leading scorer last season] Vinny Lopes, the fastest skater in the league. Literally, I had never seen him get beaten to a puck, but in this game Vinny Lopes was getting beaten to pucks. I just realized, ‘it’s not in the cards’.”

“Next year” is finally here.

Key players from last season’s team — Jones, captain Sam Brewster and top-line players Lopes and Nick Barbera — graduated, but the team has regrouped from their departures well. At the end of its regular season, Stony Brook is No. 2 in the ACHA rankings, trailing only Minot State, with a record of 26-2-2.

Junior forward J.T. Hall has emerged as the leader of the Seawolves’ offense scoring 65 points in 29 games. Senior forwards Andrew Cetola and Tyler Underhill have added 44 and 41 points, respectively, as part of a deep supporting cast.

“This is a totally different team than my team last year,” Jones said. “Last year’s team had more skill, I’d say, but this year’s team has better chemistry, lines one through four. They’re all on the same page, doing the same thing on the ice.”

This past weekend, Stony Brook hosted Central Oklahoma as the two teams squared off for a pair of games in a rematch of last season’s title game. After losing narrowly in a shootout on Saturday night, the Seawolves were able to exact revenge on the Bronchos Sunday afternoon, winning 5-3.

“Central Oklahoma is a great team and it was nice to get that monkey off our back,” Garofalo said. “Finally beating a team like that gives us a lot of confidence going into nationals, knowing we can compete with anyone.”

Although the newfound rivalry got chippy at times over the weekend, particularly on Saturday when the two teams combined for 48 penalty minutes, Garofalo does not think there is animosity between the clubs.

“I don’t think there’s bad blood,” he said. “Obviously there’s some emotion that comes into play, but at the end of the day it was just two highly competitive teams battling out there.”

Battling. It’s what the Seawolves will need to do to return to the ACHA National Championship game this season. Regular season numbers can be thrown out the window once the ultimate spectacle, described by Jones as having a “must faster pace” than regular division play, begins.

The tournament, hosted by Robert Morris University in Chicago, will begin for Stony Brook in a round-of-16 matchup against the winner of Syracuse and Illinois on March 4.

The advice from Jones to players going to Nationals for their first time? Soak it in.

“Enjoy the experience. You never know if it’ll be your last time,” he said. “Don’t overthink yourself. What the team has been doing all year has been working, so don’t try to over-compensate for the teams you’re playing against.”

Under the most pressure, like what comes with competing in the National Championships, just a single slip-up can be a team’s demise. This Stony Brook team knows the brutality of that all too well. In a single-game elimination format, one off night can be the difference between agony and glory.

“It’s a single-elimination,” Garofalo said. “You lose one game and you go home. We really don’t have any choice but to try our best and put our best foot forward.”

Stony Brook will enter Nationals playing perhaps its best hockey of the season.

On Sunday, the Seawolves claimed their fourth consecutive Eastern States Collegiate Hockey League title, beating Lehigh Valley, 4-1, in the finals. For Stony Brook, which also beat Rhode Island in the ESCHL playoffs, the divisional tournament serves as a warm-up for Nationals.