Grind Catches Up to Bemidji State
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
FORT WAYNE, Ind. For much of this season, Bemidji State held one of the top four spots in the Pairwise — and deservedly so.
Among the Beavers' season highlights were victories over Miami, Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha, and Western Michigan. Not to mention a 14-3-1 conference record when, coming off a Frozen Four last season, they had the target squarely on their backs.
But a season's long grind finally caught up with coach Tom Serratore's crew, as the Beavers managed just one win in their final six games. The final loss came Saturday, in its final game as a member of the CHA — a 5-1 NCAA first-round loss to Michigan in a game that was a one-goal affair halfway through the third period.
Said Serratore, "There's a very small margin of error in Division I college hockey. I don't necessarily think it was us. I want to give credit to the opposing teams. But the second half of the year, we had 18 games — 19 now. We had five home games. I don't think there's a team in the country that had [only] five home games."
As a member of the four-team CHA this season — though set to move to the WCHA next season — the Beavers' schedule was filled with 16 non-conference games. It's the unfortunate side effect to an 18-game league schedule.
"Bussing to Kalamazoo, Michigan, bussing to Omaha, flying in our league — there was a lot of wear and tear on our guys' bodies, mentally and physically," said Serratore. "I think, a little bit at the end, it took its toll. We're on a 10-day road trip to Huntsville and then to Niagara. It's not easy."
Bemidji State owns 13 NAIA, NCAA Division II and NCAA Division III national titles. This year, in search of its first at the Division I level, Bemidji had such a strong regular season that even a loss in the CHA semifinals still didn't drop the Beavers out of the top eight spots in the Pairwise.
But the pressure was on all year.
"It's very difficult to sustain the type of energy the second half of the year," continued Serratore, a five-time CHA Coach of the Year recipient and last year's runner-up for the Spencer Penrose National Coach of the Year. "And we had to win. We had to win every weekend, gang. Every weekend, to solidify our spot in the Pairwise. That's a lot of pressure. And we did that. We did that."
Added captain Chris McKenzie, "I think our effort was there. I'm really proud of the guys the way we battled. Coach alluded to how tough of a grind it was, physically and mentally. You've got to remember that we're all student-athletes too. That's not an excuse, but hopefully our guys can learn from that experience."
Saturday night's game against Michigan was the last to ever feature a CHA team — put that in the trivia books. Bemidji now heads to the high-powered WCHA next season.
Of course, McKenzie and the seniors won't be there to see that. But they've led the way for their team to earn respect from the entire college hockey landscape — once considered an almost impossible task for a team outside the "Big 4" conferences.
"This locker room is the closest locker room I've ever been in," said a tearful McKenzie. "From that standpoint, it was like going to the rink with 26 brothers every day."
And so this era for Bemidji ends. But with the foundation already laid by Serratore, McKenzie and Co., it's clear that the next one has already begun.