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North Branford SportsBeat: To Be a National Champion

Local athletes reflect on commitment and sacrifice it takes to be a national champion.

North Branford SportsBeat: To Be a National Champion

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A national championship is a college athlete's holy grail. It's the one shining moment that never really seems to fade away. A national championship is forever and the reason why the best players in the country always manage to put their team and school, ahead of themselves.

"It is so hard to achieve that goal," said Greenwich native who helped lead Boston College to the NCAA hockey championship in 2010. "No one can take that away from you, especially our national championship ring. We will be able to tell our children and grandchildren what we accomplished."

Atkinson, who just finished playing his first season in the NHL with the Columbus Blue Jackets, is one of several athletes from Connecticut who've been part of national championship team. All have one thing in common and that's the sweat equity that steered them toward being a champion.

"It makes all the 6 a.m. lifting sessions, late practices and film study all worthwhile," said , who played quarterback for and helped the City College of San Francisco to the junior college national championship last year. "Nothing comes easy, you have to make tremendous sacrifices to make it happen. What we accomplished and the bond we created in achieving it can never be taken away."

Fairfield native and graduate , just helped Loyola Univeristy win its first national championship in Division I lacrosse. He posted a 16-1 record playing goalie for the Greyhounds and shut down Maryland in the title game.

"The feeling is absolutely incredible," said Runkel. "To accomplish something that few college athletes ever do, is truly amazing. Our alumni were coming up to us after the game and telling us how proud they were of us and it's something that you'll never forget."

Like Runkel, Atkinson played a significant role in his team's national championship. He scored two goals in a 5-0 rout of Wisconsin, helping Boston College clinch the title.

"We were the underdogs and no one had us winning," said Atkinson, whose brother Tommy, played on the 2012 national championship team at Boston College. "Wisconsin was a stacked team and we just were more prepared and executed better. I will never forget throwing my helmet and gloves up in the air. That last part of the school year flew by and we were the kings."

graduate Harold Jensen was part of one of the most memorable national championships in NCAA history. As a shooting guard for Villanova in 1985, Jensen came off the bench to score 14 points in the Wildcats' seismic, 66-64 upset win over Georgetown in the title game. He once told Sports Illustrated that being part of that national championship team was a game changer for him, "That season, that tournament was a turning point in my life beyond the sport," says Jensen. "It taught me to believe in myself, and I've taken that through my whole life."

For some athletes, winning a national championship is the apex of their career and something they'll cherish forever.

"When we take our children to visit BC in the future," said Atkinson. "We will be able to show them the national championship banner and tell them we were the ones who achieved that."

*Other players from the area to earn national championship honors in 2012 include:

Christian Higgins (New Canaan) 2012 Cal-Berkley National Championship Swimming.

Phil Dobson (New Fairfield), Alex Yackery (Darien), Justin Shaw (Darien), 2012 Loyola National Championship Lacrosse.

The University of Virgina's rowing team won the 2012 National Championship. The Patch area was well represented with athletes who were part of the Cavaliers winning team. They include: Hunter and Paige Terry (Greenwich), Lizzy Youngley (Wesport), Brittany Wengel (), Emily Pik and Emily Crump (Darien), Betsy and Mary Nilan (Milford), Molly Frear (Wilton) and Cristine Candland (Greenwich).

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