Amidst the madness that is the NCHA Men's Conference this year - all but one team (Marian) had a conference loss prior to December - hockey minds search for reasons.  One of those reasons is simple: Aurora.

The Spartans, in their fourth year as a full conference member, have rattled off five league wins already, won seven games total and have only lost to opponents ranked nationally in the top-12.  Aurora appears to have graduated from an expansion team to a legitimate threat to win every night.  In previous years, the Spartans have banked flashes of strong play - maybe even a few wins here and there.  But this year's version appears to have grown into a full-blown factor.

Just ask St. Scholastica, Northland, Lawrence, Concordia Wisconsin or MSOE.  Aurora's five NCHA victories are a school record for conference wins.  The Spartans grabbed their fourth NCHA win before the calendar turned to December last weekend.  The time of year is significant.  Aurora has won four league games each of the past two years; in both 2016-17 and 2017-18, the fourth victory came in late January.  Aurora's fourth league win (last Friday against Concordia Wisconsin) came ... in NOVEMBER.  MSOE was the last team to make the playoffs from the South Division last season, and the Raiders qualified with seven wins.  With five wins and ten points prior to the holiday break, the Spartans are  set up nice for a run to the playoffs come February.

"It's been a long time since, back in my junior days, when we were winning a lot," said Aurora head coach Jason Bloomingburg, who took the job before the 2016-17 season.  "It's been a couple years of ups and downs, but we're getting to where I knew we could be when I took the job, and its been exciting."

When coaches like Bloomingburg take jobs at new or almost-new programs, they always have a plan.  They've probably discussed the plan with their athletic director, other administrators and their assistant coaches.  But the thing is, the plan almost never plays out.  Certainly not the way they envisioned.  And while every plan includes evolving into a winner at some point, many times that stage never comes.  Sometimes the program never leaves the bottom of the standings.

Bloomingburg's plan is moving along right on schedule.  The team has improved the past two years, winning four games his first year and five last year.  This season is shaping up to see some major growth, evidenced by the 7-3 record the Spartans have posted.  The three losses have come to No. 12 Marian, No. 5 Trinity and No. 1 UW-Stevens Point. 

"It's been night and day from day one, when I took the job, to now," said Bloomingburg.  "It's great to be playing in these big games and finding ways to win.  We know there's a lot of growth ahead, but it's exciting."

It has been exciting, to say the least.  The fashion in which Aurora is winning hockey games is down right amazing.  It started against St. Scholastica three weeks ago, when the Spartans trailed the Saints 3-1 with just over two minutes to play.  Jacob Holmers scored to make it 3-2, then Connor Chilton tied it with the goalie pulled and just 27 seconds left.  At 2:14 of overtime, Larry Jungwirth scored the game-winner.  Just your run-of-the-mill, standard comeback from being down two goals in the game's final three minutes.

Two days later against Northland it was Aurora that coughed up a 3-2 lead midway through the third period.  Instead of folding, Shawn O'Malley completed his hat trick with 6:29 left in regulation to make it 4-3.  Holmers added an empty-netter and the Spartans were 2-0 in conference play.

In their next game against Lawrence, the Spartans again found themselves tied in the third period.  Riley Doyon played hero, scoring the eventual game-winner with 6:12 left to play.  

The Thanksgiving holiday weekend provided a wild win, too, with Aurora losing grip on a 3-1 lead past the mid-point of the game yet still winning in dramatic fashion.  Wesleyan was dominating play in the third period, trailing by a goal, and finally scored with the extra attacker to tie the game with 1:05 remaining.  After surviving additional Wesleyan scoring opportunities on the ensuing shift, Aurora skated down and scored with 17 seconds left.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Bloomingburg.  "I don't know how many of those my heart can take ... (Wesleyan) pops one in after a time out ... Then they come down off the face-off and I'm thinking, we might not get this to overtime; it looks like they're going to score on us NOW.  I don't know if it's our ignorance of our youth, but our young guys, if they're down, they don't quit.  Three freshmen come down on a rush, 17 seconds left, and find a way to put it in." 

It was another third-period game-winner for Doyon, with Jungwirth getting the assist.  Doyon's goal was the latest game-winning goal in regulation time this season in the NCHA.

The crazy train didn't stop last weekend, either, as Aurora came back from a 2-0 deficit early to defeat MSOE 4-2.  Connor Chilton and Dylan Rauh scored third-period goals to break a 2-2 tie entering the final 20 minutes.

Being on the winning side of exciting, amazing finishes generally leads to a lot of fun.  Fun is abundant right now in the Aurora locker room.  Bloomingburg admits it's cliche but says he doesn't think he has been around a closer group of players.  And that leads back to the plan.

"With D-III recruiting, we get to know so much about these kids," said Bloomingburg.  "We get to know the characteristics and personalities of these guys.  Sometimes, even if you do it right, sometimes it doesn't gel.  But these guys like each other and they gel.  Some of the guys who you didn't think were going to be close, now they're best friends.  They hang out all the time."

That's part of the uniqueness of what Aurora has going.  Every coach recruits the players they think will thrive on their roster, of course, but it's hard to tell whether they will fit well in the locker room with new teammates.  Bloomingburg appears to have hit the jackpot with this group.

Drew Doyon has been one of those locker room guys, leading the group and keeping them focused.  One of the older players on the team, Bloomingburg says the team has "revolved around him" and describes him as a "work-horse."

Rauh has been a spark-plug for the Spartans, posting points in six games this season.  "He gets us going, night-in and night-out," said Bloomingburg.  "He's fantastic to watch."

Eight freshmen load the top lines for Aurora - including Riley Doyon, O'Malley, Holmers and Jungwirth.

On the back-end, the best player fans might not know about is sophomore Lordanthony Grissom.

"(Grissom) doesn't get that much recognition because he doesn't put a ton in the net, but if you watch him, he's as close to D-I and pro player as I've seen," said Bloomingburg.  "I wouldn't want to go against him.  He's just a beast." 

In goal has been Josh Boyko, who has posted six wins in his nine starts.  He has a 2.95 goals against average and an .891 save percentage.
Bloomingburg is cautious about reading TOO much into the early-season success, citing the youth of his roster.  A reminder of that came when Aurora was on the other side of the excitement two weeks ago at then No. 10 Trinity.  The Spartans jumped out to a 3-0 lead and led 4-1 past the midpoint of the hockey game, only to see the Bantams score five unanswered goals.  

But even in the loss, the game was more proof of change.  Aurora putting a top-ten opponent on the ropes, making them scramble, is a far cry from games against top teams in previous years. 

"I put it on the players believing in what we can do here, and us as a staff," said Bloomingburg.  "We're getting closer and closer to that everyday.  Before, when we would go play some top teams, it was, 'Okay, let's hold on and see what happens.'  Now we're right in the mix."  


I think it's the best conference in the country.  We've all said it in our meetings ... it shows the high-level coaches, the support from schools and administrations.  You can have the best setup with locker rooms and the rink, but if you don't have the support, it's just not going to work ... The work ethic with all the coaches is off the charts.  It's more than a job.  On the top, though, are the players.  You look at the quality of the players on these teams, it's hard to tell who could be a D-I guy and not.  It's very close.  The word's out on our conference.  The people you would have been calling before (recruiting) are now calling you and wanting to talk about the experience of playing in the NCHA.  

We were looking to give back.  I put in on our captains, telling them to come up with some volunteering and charity work the team could do.  They came up with the Teddy Bear Toss.  We've gotten the local youth teams involved, a lot of our parents find a way to make it in for that game.  It has become a big event for us, and for a great cause.  It's fun and, at the end of the day, it's about people helping people.

Focus on us.  Don't worry about what other teams are going to do against us.  There's a reason we're winning these games and there's a reason we're in these games against some of the best in the country.  It's because we're playing our way and focusing on us.