Warwick Panthers B crowned National Champions

For some, it had been an event four years in the making. Having been denied the title by Cardiff and then Nottingham for successive years, the Panthers had remained undefeated in the league and were ready to finally etch Warwick’s name onto the title trophy.

Coach Jonathan Stobart pulled together a team that he believed was the “strongest Panthers squad ever”. This was certainly the case, with Warwick’s scoring line boasting the two top ranked players in the Southern Conference, Tristan Sambruck and Timothy Donnison. These two players have generated somewhat of a religious following within Division 3 hockey and, with 59 goals and 28 assists between them during the regular season, it is unsurprising that teams fear and respect their effortless on-ice chemistry.

Warwick showed no less potency at the back, with Chris Anthony and Veit Dinges leading a stalwart defence that would only allow Warwick to concede two goals in the entire tournament. Furthermore, a superb performance from the Warwick netminder and captain David Nicol saw shots denied time and time again when the opposition eventually managed to break through.

Warwick were pitted against Northumbria, Bristol, Edinburgh and Cambridge Women’s in the group stage, a draw that seemed to spread a sense of complacency through the Warwick dressing room, as they had routed both Bristol and Cambridge twice in the league and were statistically superior to the two northern sides. In the first game, Northumbria managed to capitalise on a Warwick defensive error to get a goal in a 3-1 win for Warwick, but no other team would manage to penetrate the Warwick defence throughout the group stage, with 7-0 victories against Bristol and Edinburgh. Cambridge were forced to forfeit due to a lack of players, which allowed for a short exhibition game between the Panthers and an “Oxbridge Women’s” mixed team, followed by an organised penalty shootout. In the spirit of the game Warwick fielded their netminder as centre whilst rookie goalie Tobias Witmarsh guarded the pipes, leading Dave Nicol to be (as far as I’m aware) the only goalkeeper in the league to manage a goal and an assist.

Although the group stages may have been relatively easy for the Panthers, they weren’t short of action, something the crowd lapped up by the pint. A cheap shot on the gentleman of hockey Tim Donnison lead Veit Dinges to weigh up the culprit and receive a ten minute misconduct penalty, proving the brotherhood and unity felt by the Warwick team. Humorous calls from the crowd of “We paid for blood” were also mysteriously answered during the Newcastle game as blood on the ice delayed the match as a result of a nasty collision near the boards. It was clear that despite a preference for skill and finesse, Warwick weren’t afraid to fight tooth and nail if the opposition weren’t going to play by the rules.

Such a solid performance throughout the group stages saw Warwick easily carried through to the semi-finals along with their main rivals Nottingham C as well as Nottingham D and Imperial College. Warwick have been used to the comfortable prospect of victory at most games due to an unbeaten streak in the regular season dating back to 2009, yet it was distinctly aware in the dressing room that their semi final match up against Nottingham C, the team described as “heavy favourites” and ranked above Warwick in the BUIHA Power Rankings, would be a pivotal moment in Warwick’s journey. An expletive laden speech delivered by the captain and a nerve wracking wait for the pre-game ice cut preluded what was to become the defining game of the Panther’s epic season. Although conceding early in the match, Warwick’s not-so-secret weapon Tristan Sambruck picked up a deflected feed from winger Matt George to cut in and post it sweetly into the top right. The lethal combination of Sambruck, Donnison and Dinges then continued to bag a further goal each, chipping away at the Nottingham netminder’s astonishing save percentage of 0.96. This is not to detract from the scale of Warwick’s challenge; Nottingham fielded the top two goalscorers in the Northern Conference and had an equally impressive unbeaten record. However, it was the grit and determination of Warwick’s lesser sung heroes that guaranteed their path to glory, with James Prescott and Hannah Bridges showing extraordinary commitment and concentration on the backcheck. On several occasions, Nottingham broke loose, only to be chased down or pushed out of position by these valuable assets to the Warwick team. With the final whistle the bench erupted into a fiesta of excitement and relief, despite the fact that the job was not yet finished. Warwick had defeated the team that was hot favourite and had dominated the league so many times before, so for that brief moment, nothing in the world really seemed to matter for them.

Fortunately for Warwick, the peculiar seeding system at the tournament produced a shock final opponent for them in the form of Nottingham D. Having just disposed of their superior counterpart and having been well rested, it was more or less a formality for Warwick to successfully defeat Nottingham again and raise the plate above their heads. Goals from Matt George, Tristan Sambruck, Tim Donnison and Joe Verlaque were amongst six that passed the Nottingham keeper, whilst the Warwick defence denied Nottingham even an opportunity at clawing back a few points. Fruitless in the dying minutes, Nottingham pulled the goalkeeper in desperation, but it was to no avail. The trophy was Warwick’s and nobody was going to rip it from the Panthers’ claws. Tim Donnison deservedly received the Man of the Match award, as Dave Nicol proudly skated up to receive the plate from the president of the BUIHA.

What made this tournament particularly poignant was that it rewrote the longstanding stereotypes of the league. Nottingham C no longer took the glory, whilst Cardiff didn’t even progress past the group stage. Within the Warwick camp, the dependency on “The Sambruck Show” was weakened, with other players proving their mettle in the heat of the moment. Adam “The Doc” Figgins demonstrated, as he had in the league, that he could dangle like Datsyuk and more importantly finish well, earning himself five goals in the group stage. Furthermore, A screened slapshot from Joe Verlaque, a “dig for victory” in front of the net from Chris Beal and a cheeky wristshot from Sam Evans all proved that any of the Warwick team were more than capable of contributing to the scoreline. Furthermore, it was clear that the new recruits of Evans, Verlaque and myself learned a lot from the ‘old dogs’ of Silvester ‘Silvy’ Czanner, Stephen Keetley and of course Donnison and Sambruck.

Its with thanks to the entire Warwick Squad that the plate is finally home. With the loss of many valuable players to the real world outside university life next year, the future is uncertain for the success of the Warwick Panthers. However, if the trends set by this outstanding achievement continue, there is no reason why they cannot mould a new generation of Warwick players to replace those who will be sorely missed. Cardiff and Nottingham should start preparing their teams for 2012, as the Panthers have only tasted their first blood!

Results:

Panthers B 3-1 Northumbria Flames

Panthers B 7-0 Bristol Lions

Panthers B 7-0 Newcastle Wildcats

Panthers B 3-0 Edinburgh Eagles

Panthers B 5-0 Cambridge Women’s (forfeit)

Panthers B 4-1 Nottingham Mavericks C

Panthers B 6-0 Nottingham Mavericks D

Warwick Panthers B National Champions 2011:

Chris Anthony

Chris Beal

Hannah Bridges

Silvester Czanner

Veit Dinges

Tim Donnison

Sam Evans

Adam Figgins

Matt George

Stephen Keetley

Calum Murray

Chris Neve

Sarah Powell

James Prescott

Tristan Sambruck Joe Verlaque

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