Never Say Never
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Score another one for the little guy — as if we didn't learn our lesson before.
Yes, No. 16 seed Alabama-Huntsville lost, 3-2 in overtime Friday, and there aren't supposed to be any moral victories in sports. But once again, the little CHA team — one with a sub-.500 record for crying out loud — showed that maybe it really does deserve to be in this tournament after all.
Not that "deserve" isn't a loaded word. But there are those out there who want to deny these automatic bids to these "lesser" conferences — and thus missing the point of the whole tournament.
So, like Mercyhurst, as a member of the MAAC, in 2000, and Bemidji State in 2005, and Holy Cross last year — which actually won the overtime classic against Minnesota in the West regional — the Chargers, winners of three straight dramatic come-from-behind games in the CHA tournament just to get here, extended mighty Notre Dame to double overtime before finally giving way.
"All I have to say is wow. I am really proud of our guys," said UAH coach Doug Ross, who after 25 seasons behind the bench, finally coached his last game for the Chargers, a little later than he probably figured it would be two months ago.
"They really played with all of their heart and all of their spirit. You know we were coming back from behind, and they never gave up. We got down a couple of goals early, and our guys never gave up and I am really proud of the way they came back and really made it a game."
Of course, that's nothing new for this team. The Chargers were down in each CHA tournament game, including 3-0 in the opener and 4-0 to Robert Morris in the final. And each team, they found a way to rally.
So, big deal, what's a 2-0 deficit to the No. 1-ranked team in the country?
"(We) were in a position to even win that game. We had some real good chances — I knew were going to get some chances tonight, because we played strong enough on defense," said Ross. "You know when Marc (Narduzzi) came in (in goal after the 2-0 deficit), he played sensational. I think this is the best game I've seen him play. He just played great.
"The seniors are the guys that led our team out there. I am really proud of them. They represented our school very well against a very fine hockey team that is coached very well by Jeff Jackson. Jeff is a heck of a coach, he's got a heck of a team and I hope he goes all the way.
At least Jackson will have some more impetus to motivate his team today against Michigan State. If you'll remember, in 2005, defending champ Denver was extended to overtime by CHA champ Bemidji State before losing, 5-4. That turned out to be the toughest game the Pioneers played in the tournament, as it rolled to another national title.
"Well I hope that nobody asks me about the fact that it wasn't easy," Jackson said.
Jackson's coach-speak turned out to be more than just a phony line.
"I knew it was going to be a tough game coming in, and Alabama gave us everything I expected them to and especially when we gave up the two-nothing lead I knew we were in trouble," Jackson said. "It certainly wasn't a lack of effort on our part, I give them a lot of credit for the effort they put in and the difficult style in which they played against us.
"It was tough for us to generate scoring chances, and when we did, the kid they put in net played out of his head, so they deserve a lot of credit.
Freshman Ryan Thang knows about playing out of his head — he's been doing it all season for the Irish. And here he scored in the first period, and then the game winner in overtime. The celebration that followed, in the fifth-longest NCAA tournament game ever played, was one borne more of relief than ecstasy.
"It was an exciting play and an exciting goal and great time for our program," Thang said of the game winner. "It just rolled off the boards and their goalie was on fire with his glove, so I knew I had to put it on the high blocker side, I kind of lost it and then the water bottle flew up so I knew it was in and it was just a great feeling.
Notre Dame goalie David Brown did what he's done all season, for the most part — managed the game so his teammates had a chance to win, even when the Chargers rallied to tie.
"The first goal was really frustrating, it got deflected in off a stick and I was going to my blocker side and I got beat, but the second one was a good shot," Brown said. "But it was really frustrating to have both of those goals go in back-to-back and let them back in the game, but I calmed down just like our whole team did and the team supported me which helped me make some more saves and give our team the chance to win the game."
We'll see if, like Denver in 2005, the Irish now calm down and dominate the rest of the way.
Notre Dame has already answered a lot of questions about its program this season, its second under Jeff Jackson. But the questions for UAH may only just be beginning. It needs a new coach and its entire league is in jeopardy of extinction.
It's against this backdrop that UAH gave everyone involved a morale boost.
"I think everyone in that dressing room, including the coaches and each and every player — that's who we were playing for," said senior forward Mike Salekin. "It was just everyone in that dressing room, so with coach, as well as all the players — it wasn't one guy more than the other guy.
"Obviously we would like to do it for coach, as it is his last year and he has been great to us for four years. I think our seniors appreciate they way he has been the last four years and just wanted to repay him. "