The 2011-12 Ferris State hockey team is going where no Bulldogs team has gone before: the Frozen Four.
“It’s a very special time for our program and were excited about going to Tampa,” Ferris State senior defenseman Chad Billins said after a 2-1 victory over Cornell on Saturday in the Midwest Regional final.
Before Saturday, the benchmark for Ferris State teams was the 2002-03 group, which made it as far as its regional final before bowing out to eventual tournament champion Minnesota.
Bulldogs senior goaltender — and Midwest Regional most valuable player — Taylor Nelson said he is proud that this year’s Ferris State group was able to take the program another step forward.
“Coming in as a freshman to Ferris State University there’s memorabilia of that 2002-03 team hung up in the walls in the dressing room, hung up in the rink facility and in the weight room,” Nelson said. “To say that we surpassed what they had done that season is pretty special.”
For Bulldogs coach Bob Daniels, his program’s first trip to the Frozen Four shows just how far the university as a whole has come during Daniels’ 23 years as both an assistant and head coach at Ferris State.
“I’ve seen the growth at our university over that 23-year period,” Daniels said. “It’s a byproduct of the direction that the school as gone in terms of improvements … and it’s because of those upgrades in facilities and the entire campus I think it has made recruiting a lot easier.”
If there has been a theme to this year’s NCAA tournament so far, it has been the success of small schools. Both Union and Ferris State now find themselves among the last four teams standings in the country, all the more impressive considering that the two schools have zero NHL draft picks between their two rosters.
“College hockey is a place for small schools,” Daniels said. “College hockey has always thrived with the small schools with the idea that it’s such a team sport. You can have your star athletes, but if you have a roster full of really good players and good kids, all schools can be successful. You don’t have to be a mega school to win.”
Cornell coach Mike Schafer complimented the job that Daniels has done to build the hockey program at Ferris State into what it is now with the limited resources Daniels has.
“I think Bobby has always been one of those guys that has done a tremendous job of looking around and building his program to be competitive on a national scale,” Schafer said. “There are a lot of programs that get their pick of the litter of recruits and have all the best facilities in the world, and it’s hard to get to the Frozen Four. To do that, doesn’t matter who you are, it’s a tremendous accomplishment to get there and they have a great opportunity to win it.”
But the Bulldogs aren’t satisfied with just being one of the feel-good stories of the tournament so far. They have hopes of putting Ferris State’s first national championship banner in the rafters of Ewigleben Arena.
“We achieved a goal here tonight,” Nelson said. “We made the Frozen Four but we’re not satisfied with just being there. We’re going to look for two more wins.”
“We won’t get too excited about this,” senior forward Jordie Johnston said. “We know there’s still more to do.”