After a hard-fought season playing against arguably the most competitive group of teams in Western Collegiate Roller Hockey League history, the Gauchos enter March the favorites to win their division and poised to make a run at a national championship.

Last year, the Gauchos finished the regular season fourth in the WCRHL but won the league title at the division tournament before falling to Missouri State in the Sweet Sixteen at the National Collegiate Roller Hockey League finals. This year, they enter the WCRHL tournament as the first seed and are looking to not only defend the division crown but also atone for last year’s shortcomings on the big stage.

“Nationals last year left a real sore taste in our mouth,” forward Max Ryan said. “There was no off-season this year and all the boys took a deeper commitment to fitness.”

Despite cutting their roster down from 10 skaters to eight, the Gauchos finished the season with 13 wins, their best regular season total since the inception of the WCRHL in 2003. Their seven-game win streak at the onset of the campaign was the longest in the WCRHL this year, and included wins against all five teams in the league.

“We lost some key components of our team so the people who were returning knew we were going to have to step up our overall game,” defenseman Travis Noe said. “I think that could be the biggest reason for our success this season: our commitment to getting better.”

Much of the Gauchos’ recent success has rested on the shoulders of Noe, who led the WCRHL in all major offensive categories with 41 goals, 37 assists and 78 points. No other player had more than 63 points on the year.

“Travis is the biggest beauty in the league,” defenseman Jake Wiskel said.

“My biggest goal was to play a well-rounded game every game to allow us to compete,” Noe added. “I think for the most part I met that goal.”

When asked, the players interviewed named sophomore defenseman Christian Simonsen and fourth-year forward Colin Palmer as the biggest surprise performers. Simonsen finished tied for the team lead with five powerplay goals, while Palmer was second on the squad with 20 goals on the year.

“When we pulled Christian Simonsen up to D1 after he spent his freshman year on the blue squad we knew he was going to have a big impact on our team,” defenseman Casey Wedge said.

“Colin has flown under the radar for the past three years by not scoring much or ever really putting up major stats,” Noe said. “He’s always been a hardworking player, but this season he has improved his dedication and commitment to the team and it shows in his stats.”

Despite their success so far, the Gauchos can’t take repeating as division champs as a given. They’ll have to go through Long Beach State and Cal Poly — the reigning national champion and runner-up, respectively — as well as No. 2 seed UNLV and perennial powerhouse Arizona State. They also finished the year in a three-way tie for first overall and won the top seed only by virtue of a goal differential tiebreaker.

“Winning the region this year is going to be harder than ever before as the level of play is only getting better and better every tournament and the league is at an all-time best,” said Wedge.