Team of the Week: Ferris State
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Outside of Big Rapids, there are no household names on the Ferris State roster. But if the team continues playing like this, that may soon change.
Ferris State, coming off a weekend home-and-home sweep of Notre Dame, now stands atop the Pairwise, the system that selects and seeds teams for the NCAA Tournament. More urgently, the Bulldogs are five points up on Western Michigan for first place in the CCHA, with two weekends remaining, the last of which is against the Broncos.
These are lofty heights for a program that, while enjoying a variety of good seasons, has only made the NCAAs once in its Division I history, in 2003. That was the year Chris Kunitz was a Hobey Baker Award finalist before becoming the biggest household name of any Ferris State hockey alumnus.
With that has come a lot of attention this week on Ferris State, something it isn't used to. But the team has taken it in stride.
"I've been watching for it in practice and I haven't noticed any change," FSU coach Bob Daniels said. "It's been business as usual, but it is an added pressure."
This was a year that Daniels knew his team could be good. But so far, the Bulldogs have passed everyone's expectations.
Of course, titles are not won in February, and Ferris State is playing in the nation's toughest conference this season. While an NCAA bid is a relative certainty at this point, nothing else is for the Bulldogs.
"I am well aware of that, believe me," Daniels said.
But without any household names, something must be going right. For starters, the team's duo of senior Taylor Nelson and freshman C.J. Motte have been outstanding in net. But this has been somewhat chronicled. On defense is a steady, experienced group that is free to make plays and make mistakes with the kind of goaltending behind it.
Meanwhile, the offense is a bunch of parts that have been mixed and matched like Lincoln Logs to build a unit that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Jordie Johnston is a good example. A 24-year old senior from Saskatchewan, he leads the team with 16 goals, after scoring 10 total in his first three seasons. He started his career at FSU as a center, but was moved this season to wing, while Matthew Kirzinger was moved from wing to center to play with him, and sophomore Garrett Thompson was put on the other wing.
"He tore up the Saskatchewan Junior League, but it never seemed to translate," Daniels said. "I don't know if it was a confidence thing, but it was a real head scratcher. But one thing is, we had a decent team the last five or six years, so for guys like Jordie, he wasn't necessarily in prime roles. Our guys stay for four years, whereas other teams, if you're younger you might get a prime role quicker than here. Some of these guys toil in obscurity on our third or fourth line and then when they get a chance, they kinda make me look bad."
Kyle Bonis is second on the team in goals with 15, playing wing on the second line. He was a hot commodity as a 15-year old, but never got much bigger and teams cooled on him. He wound up coming to Ferris State as a walk-on at the suggestion of his NAHL coach Anthony Palumbo.
"I can't say enough about him," Daniels said. "He works hard and good things happen as a result. ... At 15, he was a name player. But that's how things go."
Setting up Bonis is another Ferris State success story, Derek Graham. Graham was another high-scoring junior player who struggled to put up points in the NCAA, so the coaching staff moved him back to defense last year.
"It was a strength factor more than anything," Daniels said of Graham's early struggles. "He played great (on defense), but halfway through this year (assistant coach) Mark Kaufman said let's try him back at center. And I'll be damned."
That maneuver came at a time when FSU was struggling, in between the hot start and the torrid second half. That line of Bonis and Graham also got freshman T.J. Schlueter back in the lineup, after an injury temporarily halted a strong rookie campaign.
And then there's the third line, which is anchored by 5-foot-9 junior Travis Ouellette and a winger Aaron Schmit, yet another of Daniels' tinker toys. Schmit was a defenseman who was moved up front last year when Graham went back to defense, and he's stuck there.
"Aaron was at times challenged breaking the puck out, but he doesn't give up the puck in the offensive zone," Daniels said.
Ouellette, meanwhile, is the team's top penalty killer.
"He's a rink rat type," Daniels said. "You see these type of centers in college hockey. He has good lateral ability, sees the ice well, and has a real good sense of the game. He's worth his weight in gold on the penalty kill. ... And we can move him to any line at any time and we won't skip a beat. He's that good of a complementary player."
Add it all up, and the Bulldogs get a lot of compliments, indeed.