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MANCHESTER, N.H. — While the excitement of the NCAA Tournament is in Manchester, N.H., this weekend for the North Dakota Fighting Sioux, you can’t blame any players for having some concern for those back home. The Sioux left behind a state wrapped up in a natural disaster right now as the Red River in Fargo, N.D., has been overcome with snow and ice after a massive storm pounded the already saturated area a few days ago. It is predicted that the level of the river could reach record highs by Monday and possibly cause massive flooding in the Fargo region.

“A couple of hours before we left yesterday, we all got text messages to our phones that classes have been canceled for the next two days, including Monday, so that people can go out and sandbag in the surrounding areas,” said Sioux defenseman Chay Genoway. “We’re focused on hockey right now but we wish everyone well back home.”

According to reports, workers in North Dakota have tried many things to avoid the river from overflowing including building walls of sandbags, controlling the river levels at the locks, even placing dynamite in the massive ice blocks to explode the glacial like formations. But at this point, it looks like the river levels will continue to rise and surpass records set back in 1897 as well as those in more recent memory when flooding caused more than $3.5 million in damage in 1997.

“Hearing all about the flood of 1997 and hearing people’s experiences, you never think you’re going to be a part of that,” said Ryan Duncan. “A couple of guys on our team have people and family in Fargo. You see how much that hits home. Guys are wondering how high the river is going to crest. We’re definitely here to play hockey but it’s something that really hits home.”

Hakstol Loved His Team from the Beginning

This season certainly hasn’t been an easy one for North Dakota. To say the team started slow is an understatement.

The Sioux began the year 5-8-1. Even after putting four wins together heading into the Christmas break, North Dakota returned and lost to Michigan State and Michigan Tech in the Great Lakes Invitational.

But since the calendar turned to 2009, North Dakota has just four losses, including two last weekend in the WCHA Final Five.

Through thick and thin, head coach Dave Hakstol feels this team still has been one of the best he’s ever coached.

“Wins and losses-wise, we’re not fine with our start,” said Hakstol. “Work ethic-wise is a little bit more important at that time of year. And this is the kind of group who has showed up at the rink since day one. From the summer and the [off-ice] commitment that they had, all the way through the early part of the year when we were not putting wins together. This has been a team that’s been based on work ethic and being a good team together.”

Asked if there was any point in the season that turned it around, Hakstol couldn’t identify one.

“A lot of times you can look back and pinpoint one spot of adversity or one major weekend where there’s a turnaround,” said Hakstol. “Not with this team.

“A lot of our media members back in Grand Forks thought I was hallucinating or a little bit crazy early on in the year because I continued to say, right from media day on, ‘I like this team.’ That’s based on what I saw in the character of the guys and how much this group of guys care about each other.

What Underdog?

Word has been stirred up that the third seeded Wildcats are considering themselves the underdog in the opening game of the regional against the second seeded Fighting Sioux on Saturday. But Hakstol feels a little differently concerning the preconceived notions of the two teams.

“No,” said Hakstol in response to being asked if UNH is the underdog. “I don’t mean to be short on that, but I guess I don’t quite understand them as an underdog. We’re playing in their back yard and I think they play here fairly often and are familiar with it. You can take any mental mindset that you want and try and spin it, but what you have are two pretty good teams. However you want to motivate yourselves as a team, that’s up to each individual team. The bottom line is that going into tomorrow night’s game, only one is going to have a chance to play on Sunday.”

Scouting the Wildcats

As they say, there is no ‘I’ in ‘team.’ North Dakota captain Ryan Duncan claims that the media may mention the same names a lot, but the entire Wildcat lineup is a force to be reckon with.

“We know they are a fast team and transition very well,” Duncan said. “They have a lot of skilled players who are underrated. Everyone knows about James van Riemsdyk, but they have a lot of other players who are dangerous and a little under the radar. We just need to focus on what we need to do.”

Coach Hakstol added, “UNH is a very good hockey team throughout their lineup. They are extremely competitive and have a great balance.”

So how will the Fighting Sioux actually fight through such a solid UNH roster?

“It’s the time of year where you have to be sharp and at your best for 60 minutes,” Hakstol said. “This has been a team based on worth ethic and being together… We’ve put last weekend behind us [going 0-2 in WCHA Final Five] and have stayed very focused [on Saturday].”

Melissa Parrelli contributed to this report.