Ferris Thinks Big
by Nate Sandals/CHN Reporter
When the Ferris State Bulldogs jumped out to a 3-1 start in conference play, some people in Big Rapids were thinking back as well as looking ahead.
With a split against Notre Dame and a sweep of the Buckeyes in Columbus, the Bulldogs were off to their best CCHA start since the 2002-03.
That team, featuring recent Stanley Cup winner Chris Kunitz of the Anaheim Ducks, was the best in Ferris State history. The offensive powerhouse squad won the conference title and made it to the final eight of the NCAA tournament.
But Ferris State coach Bob Daniels is quick to debunk comparisons between this year's squad and the 2002-03 team.
"I think this team can achieve a lot, but it's going to have to earn it," Daniels said. "With the 2002-03 team, we could flat out outwork teams. We had Chris Kunitz on our team and we had an awful lot of offensive firepower, we could make mistakes and still come back from that.
"The strength of our team this year is going to lie on defense and goaltending, which is quite different."
The Bulldogs have the fifth-ranked scoring defense in conference play, allowing just 2.33 goals per game against CCHA opponents.
Knowing his team would have to rely on solid defensive play, Daniels instituted an intensified off-ice work schedule for his team over the summer.
The Bulldogs have spent more time in the weight room than in years past. With the quick start, players saw the effort off the ice translating to on ice success.
"Everybody on our team works so hard off the ice," senior captain Adam Welch said. "When they get on the ice, it's the same thing, it carries over. They just tend to work hard. That's the kind of style that we play, we're a hard-working type team."
A pair of freshmen defenseman has helped the Bulldogs get to a solid start. Welch credits first-year blueliners Scott Wietecha and Zach Redmond with inspiring the veteran defensemen to work even harder on and off the ice this season.
Having freshmen that are excited about winning games through hard work has been a boon for the Bulldogs this season.
"I think a lot of people are buying into our system a lot more this year and it's working out to our advantage," senior goalie Mitch O'Keefe said. "Hopefully it keeps up."
The Bulldogs have added motivation to continue their success in the Ferris State fan base.
Despite some lean results in recent years, Ewigleben Ice Arena is packed for almost every game. The Ferris State student section is one of the loudest in the conference. Stationed right behind the opposing goalie for two periods, it's hard to understate the importance of the fans to the team.
"Certainly we feel a pressure within the program, the players, to reward the loyal fans that we have," Daniels said. "We want to give them some excitement. We want to reward them for their support."
Said Welch: "The last couple years we haven't been playing very well and we still have the same support. It's just been terrific. It's like they're part of the team. We're just trying to give back to them this year."
Even after getting swept by Bowling Green at Ewigleben last weekend, Ferris State is well on its way to giving Big Rapids the success it deserves.
The Bulldogs six conference points put them in sixth place in the CCHA standings. The early wins are important for Ferris State if it wants to host a playoff series this season. Last season, the Bulldogs were one of the best teams in February, going 6-2 to close out the regular season. But with its slow start Ferris State had to travel to Lake Superior State for a first-round series where it lost in three games.
"Last year we got off to a very slow start and yet we finished as one of the hotter teams in the league," Daniels said. "So even though we got off to a slow start, we finished well. But it was catch up the entire season."
This year, the Bulldogs are in the mix. It's early, but don't be surprised if the Bulldogs are rewarding their loyal fan base with a home playoff series come March.