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Hockey: Badgering for a chance

Dan Murphy | Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Last spring, as the Wisconsin Badgers took home their sixth national championship in Milwaukee, Irish defenseman Tom Sawatske was forced to watch his former teammates celebrate the victory from his apartment.

Sawatske transferred from Madison to South Bend prior to his junior season after playing for the Badgers in the first two years of his collegiate career. The senior played in 54 games for Wisconsin while picking up 3 goals and 11 assists from his spot on the blue line, but chose to leave for both hockey and academic reasons.

“I was happy for all the guys that I played with. They deserved it,” Sawatske said. “But at the same time it was kind of tough to know that you could have been there.”

It didn’t seem likely at the time – Notre Dame had finished its season at 13-17-4 – but Sawatske may get a second chance at a championship. The No. 1 Irish are certainly on a short list of contenders to take the title from Wisconsin next month.

Sawatske, along with fellow seniors Wes O’Neill and Noah Babin, has helped to anchor the top-ranked defense in the country this season.

“I felt like I had a lot more to give and I wanted to go somewhere where I could get a little better degree.” he said. “Notre Dame was a perfect fit for me.”

The Duluth, Minn., native had been recruited by former Irish coach Dave Poulin out of high school and was already familiar with some of the coaching staff. Sawatske also played on the U.S. under-18 team with Babin and Tim Wallace, who played right wing for Notre Dame last year. That team went on to win a gold medal in the 2002 World Championships.

“Noah and I have been buddies for a while. It was a familiar situation and I was really excited about the opportunity,” Sawatske said.

Sawatske, who joined the team in head coach Jeff Jackson’s first season, was also used to adjusting to a new coaching staff. He arrived at Wisconsin just as Mike Eaves was taking over their program and the two teams went through many of the same trials under new leaders.

The 5-foot-11, 196-pound Sawatske fit in well under Jackson’s new system, one that stressed puck control and defensive hockey. Although he does not fill up the net on a regular basis (three goals and four assists this season), his consistently gritty defensive play has earned him the respect of his teammates and coaches.

“I’m just trying to go out every night and shut down whatever line Wes and I are playing against,” Sawatske said. “I try to help out on offense when I can, but mainly my goal is just to keep [the opposing team] off the scoreboard.”

If Sawatske and the rest of the six-headed monster that is the Notre Dame defensive corps can continue to keep opponents off the scoreboard, Sawatske’s former teammates may be watching his victory lap this April.