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March 16, 2008 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

For Niagara, Only Sweet, Not Bitter

Purple Eagles Return to NCAAs in What Might Be CHA's Final Bid

by Chrissy Foster/CHN Reporter

LEWISTON, N.Y. — For the third time, Niagara and Bemidji State met in the final as the top two seeds, but this time it went the other way.

Last year, Niagara was the top seed, but was upset by Alabama-Huntsville.

All of that was put to rest this year.

Playing in their home building, the Purple Eagles returned to the NCAAs, defeating the Beavers 3-2 in what is likely to be the last automatic berth for College Hockey America, at least for now.

That bittersweet notion was not in the minds of Niagara personnel, however, as they celebrated the title in front of a small but raucous crowd.

"From the first day of practice, we talked about being a championship team," Niagara head coach Dave Burkholder said. "All year we dreamed about celebrating on our home ice. I had visions of this. We were on a mission to make sure our seniors went to the NCAA Tournament and we've accomplished it."

A unique mantra drove the Niagara University Purple Eagles hockey team throughout the 2007-08 campaign, a motto which read, "One season, one chance, one heartbeat." It guided the Purple Eagles when it needed it most, in the third period, facing a 5-on-3 BSU power play.

The McLeod Trophy was so close, yet so far.

But thanks to a couple of incredible saves during that stretch by goalie Juliano Pagliero, the Purple Eagles hung on — even after an apparent Ted Cook breakaway goal that followed the penalty kill was waved off.

"I don't want to talk about that five on three," said Cook. "We had so much momentum off of it, the place was going nuts it was like someone sent volts through the bench."

Said Burkholder, "The three (players) who were on the ice during the five-on-three were completely unphased. I, on the other hand, was a complete mess."

Niagara went through one heckuva year, with the CHA drama looming in the background, rumors of the program's own future, then Les Reaney's departure for the pros in midseason.

But Burkholder and the leaders held it together, just as they did Sunday. As the final buzzer sounded, the fans rose to their feet in endless cheers while purple and white confetti covered the arena floor.

"Unphased on the bench, it was going to happen for us, we felt it all year. We're not going to lose, period," Burkholder said. "Being around these guys is amazing, these guys work hard and they deserve to be here."

Cook was one of those guys, and he passed the praise right back to the coaches.

"Big things happen when two good teams play, they're well coached and play as hard as they can, two things playing like that you're bound to have something big happen," Cook said.

"Everything you've done from the point you get here until now is paying off, tonight is the reason why, it pays to work hard."

Bemidji State has been through its own turmoil, with questions about its future as well. The NCAA tournament is Niagara's reward for having to deal with that, but the Beavers won't get that opportunity.

"We played good but not good enough to win," said BSU coach Tom Serratore. "We just didn't get our forecheck going, we didn't seem to have that mojo, we didn't sustain a lot of pressure, the pressure you need to win on the road."

Niagara will take the usual CHA role as the No. 15 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, which means a likely date with the No. 2 overall seed, whatever team that winds up being. The Purple Eagles get the week off while awaiting the word, which comes next Sunday.

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