Illini seniors say goodbye to the Big Pond

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Illini seniors say goodbye to the Big Pond

Nick Clarke makes a save in a 4-3 shootout loss against Minot State on Feb. 1. Clarke played his final game at the Big Pond on Sunday.

Nick Clarke makes a save in a 4-3 shootout loss against Minot State on Feb. 1. Clarke played his final game at the Big Pond on Sunday.

Nick Clarke makes a save in a 4-3 shootout loss against Minot State on Feb. 1. Clarke played his final game at the Big Pond on Sunday.

Nick Clarke makes a save in a 4-3 shootout loss against Minot State on Feb. 1. Clarke played his final game at the Big Pond on Sunday.

By Sean Neumann

When Nick Clarke finally brought himself to take off his home sweater for the final time, he was ready to talk.

The postgame interview didn’t last long, though. Senior teammate Matt Welch jumped in to hug Clarke, ending the conversation and showing what the weekend was really about: celebrating the Illini seniors’ careers. Statistically, Saturday night’s Illini hockey game didn’t matter. Emotionally, the weight on the senior class could’ve broken through the ice. 

The seven seniors stepped onto the Big Pond knowing it would be their final game at home. And by the time they stepped off, the six senior skaters had each registered points while Clarke had earned his final win in front of a crowd that adores him enough to bow to him every time he takes the ice.

“It’s just been awesome,” Clarke said between sniffles as tears welled in his eyes. “It’s just hard taking off that white jersey for the last time.”

The seniors scored five of the seven Illini goals in Saturday night’s 7-1 win over Eastern Michigan, combining for 11 total points.

Forward John Scully earned a hat trick, while captain Austin Bostock had three points (one goal, two assists), Mike Evans had two points (one goal, one assist), and Eddie Quagliata, Matt Welch and Ben Burbridge each had an assist.

“You couldn’t really draw it up any better,” Scully said. ““It was pretty emotional. In the last few seconds there, I was like, ‘Man, this is it,’ and once that final horn hits, it really kind of catches you.”

Welch made senior night complete, earning an assist on Scully’s final goal with just over a minute remaining in the game, putting every Illini senior on the score sheet in their final home game.

“It’s surreal,” Welch said. “It feels like I was just here yesterday. We had a great run, and I wouldn’t have wanted to do it with anyone else but these guys.”

The seniors were honored before the game with a ceremony led by head coach Nick Fabbrini, who gave a speech about each player as they took pictures with their families along the Illini blue line. The home crowd gave the players a standing ovation.

“After four years of putting in a lot of time and hard work with all these guys in the locker room, you get really close to them,” Scully said. “To have to wrap it up at home is pretty tough, but I couldn’t ask for a better four years here.”

Fabbrini’s starting lineup included Bostock, Scully, Quagliata, Evans and Welch, with Clarke in net. The coach pulled Clarke with a few minutes remaining in the game, allowing the celebrated goaltender one final chance to hear the cheers of his hometown crowd, and put the same starting lineup on the ice for the final minute when they added one more goal to their legacy as Scully completed his hat trick.

“It was nice to take a minute there and recognize all the seniors you’ve been with,” said Scully after the game, pausing to collect himself. “It was pretty cool.”

Freshman Matt Flosi said it was tough for the younger players to watch the seniors go through the emotions of playing their final game on home ice, knowing it was something they would also have to go through in a few years.

“It’s sad to see them get emotional about it being their last game home,” Flosi said. “They happen to be some of my closest friends on the team and the guys I hang out with the most. It’s really sad to see them go through this.”

While emotions were high Saturday night, Welch’s mind set is similar to the other seniors’ in the locker room: Return focus on the upcoming national tournament and extend the season — and their hockey careers — as much as they can.

But for a player like Clarke, who’s started nearly 100 games and played more than 5,500 minutes wearing an Illini “I” on his chest, it’s difficult to say goodbye. Being able to look back at his time with Illinois will always be easier than it was to leave.

“We accomplished a lot as a class, and those are some of my best friends,” Clarke said. “It’s been an honor to play here.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @Neumannthehuman.