Trio of Maverick seniors set to return for one more year

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Jordan McAlpine
SPORTS EDITOR

Seniors Martin Sundberg (top), Nate Knoepke (bottom left) and Kevin Conley (bottom right) will all return for the 2021-22 season thanks to an extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA. Photos courtesy of Omaha Athletics

As Nate Knoepke answered questions via Zoom following a season-ending loss against Minnesota, the senior defenseman was unsure if he had just played the final game of his collegiate career. However, with last season being altered by COVID-19, all student-athletes were granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA, if they chose to use it.

Fast forward five months from that Saturday night in Loveland, Colorado last March, and Knoepke is gearing up for one last ride in an Omaha sweater. The 2020-21 season was a step forward for the program, but as Knoepke put it, there’s a sense of unfinished business.

“When you have your season end that way, it makes you want to come back and prove last season wasn’t a fluke,” he said. “We took a big step as a program by getting back to the NCAA tournament- so not playing how we would’ve liked made me want to come back even more. We want to show we’re better than that.”

The Minnesota native has appeared in 98 career games with the Mavericks, by far the most among current Omaha defensemen. He also played two games as a freshman for his home-state Golden Gophers before transferring.

However, he’s not the only one who will take advantage of the extra year. Senior forwards Martin Sundberg and Kevin Conley have also both opted to return.

“When I knew that everyone was getting another year, my plan was to come back all along to be completely honest,” Sundberg said. “I love the city, the school, my teammates, the coaches, Baxter (Arena)—all of it.

“I also think this place has given me so many opportunities, so it’s hard to pass up future opportunities both as an individual and a hockey player. It really was a no-brainer for me.”

Sundberg scored a career-high six goals last season, but it’s his style of game that’s earned him a reputation as one of the hardest workers and most reliable forwards on the Omaha roster.

As for the third member of the group, the decision wasn’t as clear-cut, but the Mavericks’ captain from one year ago will be back for one more go-around. Conley, who had professional offers on the table, was on the fence about whether he’d return.

He described his likelihood of returning as 50-50 at the start of the offseason. With some uncertainty around his potential path at the pro level though (due to the pandemic), his decision became easier.

“It’s hard to leave this place,” Conley said. “Everything is at your disposal here and the coaching staff here has been great, which was huge. They helped guide me through the process, I ended up making the decision to come back, and I think that was the right one.”

The Wisconsin native has been one of the Mavericks most consistent forwards the past three seasons after transferring from Denver and will surely be relied on again this season. Similar to Knoepke and Sundberg, one of the biggest factors in Conley’s decision was seeing the talent and potential with this year’s group.

Although the decision-making process may have been different for all three, now that they know they’ll be back, the trio is ready to take advantage of the opportunity.

“I really can’t express enough how excited I am to be back for one more year,” Sundberg said. “I think this program is special to be a part of and that’s a big part of why the three of us decided to come back. We want to make the most of it now.”

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