Spartans' Season End Allows Them to Reflect on Program's Resurgence
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
ALBANY, N.Y. The tears that Rick Comley fought back just after Sunday's loss in the East Regional final — one he assuredly did not hold back moments earlier in the locker room — were more complex than you would think after a defeat of such magnitude.
Mixed amid the sadness were emotions stemming from the feeling of satisfaction — a kind of bittersweet rush of feelings that can only come at such a moment of finality.
Comley has taken a lot of heat since being hired to replace the legendary Ron Mason four years ago. Never mind that the retired Mason was the one who hired him, and never mind Comley's track record as an NCAA champion. Many Spartans fans expected instant results, and the kind of offensive attack that was common in Michigan State's heyday.
It bothered Comley, though he rarely let on, but he stayed the course. Along the way, Comley became a beaming grandfather — a situation he could always turn to for joy amid the ups and downs of hockey — and his team became a cohesive unit. And the wins came.
So the end of the season, despite its bitter conclusion, allowed Comley to finally reflect on what the team, and he, actually accomplished.
"It's a process," Comley said. "You have to get in big games, you have to win something, which we did. We've been fighting to get back to being a national program, and I think we did that."
Some of Comley's outgoing seniors, a group recruited by Mason, but that had come to buy into what Comley was selling, were not as lucky as Comley; they, particularly David Booth, were not able to suppress those tears.
For seniors like Booth, Colton Fretter, Jared Nightingale and Corey Potter, it was a bit more bitter than sweet. Sure, they took some satisfaction in the Spartans' turnaround, but the reality hit that it was over, and they would be able to be around for the better years that seem to be on the horizon.
"It's pretty sad leaving this year after the previous two years," Fretter said. "But it's a good feeling."
For evidence that even better days are ahead, look no further than the all-freshmen line of Justin Abdelkader, Tim Kennedy and Tim Crowder, which performed so admirably in this tournament. Then, throw in freshman goaltender Jeff Lerg, who only recorded the Spartans' first-ever NCAA Tournament shutout on Saturday.
Crowder scored twice in this 5-4 loss to Maine, helping spark a comeback from a 4-1 deficit. Sophomore Jim McKenzie scored the third goal just before the end of the second period, which made it 4-3.
"The kids settled down and played great," Comley said. "We just ran out of time. It's not like the bad taste of last year's ending."
It started out much worse. Maine took a 2-0 lead and Comley called time out. At first, it didn't help, as the Black Bears scored again to go up 3-0. But Comley believed this team had come too far, and accomplished too much to lay a groundwork of success in the program, to just lay down.
"We worked so hard and improved so much, it was such an upbeat run," Comley said. "We knew they were going to throw it at the next. The tips just went in. We were trying to put positive thoughts in their head."
The second period belonged to Michigan State. But after McKenzie's goal, it was still a one-goal deficit, and Maine hasn't lost in 107 games when taking a lead into the third.
"It takes so much energy to come back," Comley said. "You have to re-fight the battle and do it again. When you're fighting so hard, you're going to take penalties.
"You try to build momentum again, but it's hard. The concern was, we had to fight back for so long, emotionally, it's a stressful thing. We knew we probably wouldn't get back the dominance of the second period, but I said, 'All we need is one shot.'"
Shots they got, goals they didn't. There's a reason for Maine's strong third-period record.
"They're battle tested," Comley said. "They're a big-game program."
It's the kind of thing Comley is trying to do in East Lansing again, and he's getting there. Next year, if he can get all those talented underclassmen to stick around, the Spartans may actually become an offensive force again, too.
"I thought we had a good run," said junior Drew Miller. "We have to remember what success feels like, but also what it is like to lose, because both will help next year."