Hockey culture is interesting, isn’t it.
For example, many of those involved in the game can recall that the sound track of the 1970’s movie Slap Shot included a Maxine Nightingale song entitled “Right Back Where We Started From.”
And for Minnesota State junior goaltender Stephon Williams that song takes on added meaning given the year he’s having. For not unlike his freshman year in 2012-13, he appears to right back where he started from.
Fresh out of a stellar junior hockey career that saw him help lead Waterloo to an appearance in the United States Hockey League Clark Cup finals, the Fairbanks, Alaska native didn’t skip a beat in earning Western Collegiate Hockey Association Rookie of the Year and All-WCHA First Team honors, while racking up a 21-12-2 record and a .924 save percentage while helping lead Minnesota State to a second-place league finish en route to a NCAA postseason appearance in 2012-13.
Drafted in the fourth round (106th overall) by the New York Islanders in the 2013 National Hockey League Draft, Williams suffered a “bump in the road” season as a sophomore that saw his numbers and confidence dip.
But, now well into the stretch drive of his junior campaign, he’s back to where he started from with even better numbers than his freshman year. He’s back over the 20-win mark, his goals against average is well below 2.00 and the save percentage is in the .925 range. Williams attributes several factors as to the reasons why he’s rebounded.
“I think one of the biggest things has been maturation to a certain extent,” said Williams, who ranks amongst the nation’s leaders in wins, goals against average and save percentage. “It’s how you handle success and how you handle failure. I learned a lot last year on how to take the best out of each situation and to learn. How to block out things that don’t matter and to keep doing what makes me me.”
He also said that the culture of the program has played an important role. “The biggest thing about our culture is that we control what we control and strive to do that every day. In practice and in games. We can control our effort, our attitude and that’s something you have to bring every day. Not every shift is going to go your way....how you approach things. And it all adds up.”
Minnesota State head coach Mike Hastings echoes his netminder. “Stephon has continued to mature and grow as a young man in situations that call for handling success along with the different things that life can throw at you. But there’s no doubt that his consistency has been the backbone for where we are as a team right now.”
And where the Mavericks are as a team right now is a place where the program has never been before. Ranked #1 in the nation four times in a five-week span in January and February, Minnesota State has maintained a position amongst the country’s elite.
Minnesota State has never been rated #1 before. The Mavericks won the WCHA postseason tournament last year, something new for the program. And a league regular-season title has now been checked off the check list. A a couple of other unaccomplished tasks, like advancing past the first round of the NCAA tournament and an appearance in the NCAA Frozen Four, still loom
Williams says it’s taken a concerted team effort in order to get where the program is now, but the expectations are set even higher.
“It’s really been everyone involved. The freshmen come in and have contributed right away. Everyone else is working hard to improve every day and we’ve had certain guys step up every game. There’s been a positive effect with all of us on the same page to make the team better. It’s been cool seeing it happen in front of your eyes and we’ve continued to get better on a weekly basis. The season has been an awesome experience, but we still have work to do. It’s been guys pushing each other. Coaches pushing us. It’s great to be honored with the rankings, but ultimately we have goals and we have keep working hard every day. We play in a tough conference and we play a tough schedule, but obviously we wouldn’t want to have it any other way.”