Union Climbs Yet Another Mountain
Once Unthinkable, the Dutchmen Reach College Hockey's Ultimate Event
by Joshua Seguin/CHN Writer
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. One week ago, Union did something considered unfathomable just a few short years ago. One weekend later, Union has gone a step beyond that.
With depth, scoring and energy coming from every line, the Union Dutchmen overmatched Massachusetts-Lowell and won, 4-2, advancing to their first Frozen Four in their 21st Division I season.
"We are really proud of the players and extremely happy for Union College," said Union coach Rick Bennett.
Union — a tiny liberal arts college in upstate New York, which doesn't give athletic scholarships, doesn't have the name brand recognition of the Ivy League schools it competes with, and until a few short years ago, wasn't even able to give preferential financial aid to student-athletes — has made it to a place where no ECAC team has gone in nine years. It grew itself into a respectable program, then a formidable one under Nate Leaman, then saw its architect leave, taking recruits with him, and just kept on going anyway.
The Dutchmen used an early goal by Daniel Ciampini to gain the momentum just three minutes into the game. This goal, like the first on Friday, was from an unlikely goal scorer. The goal was his third of the season and was easily the biggest of his young career.
The Dutchmen have proven that depth and defense win hockey games. On the weekend, every shift for their opponent was a battle.
After UMass-Lowell scored to make it 3-2, on a bad turnover by Jeremy Welsh, Bennett sent out his fourth line of Cole Ikkala, Max Novak and Sam Coatta. This shift was the most important one of the game for Union.
"Mistakes like that happen," said East Regional Most Outstanding Player Welsh. "Never any panic in this team. We had a good shift to follow by Max Novak's line. All we can do is wash it and go harder the rest of the way."
Having faith in your depth is one thing but trusting them in key moments of the game is another. With 2:30 left in the game Bennett again sent out his fourth line; the line came through and did not allow a goal. Not many teams faced with a one-goal lead late in a regional final would have ever thought to send out the fourth line, but Bennett having full trust in the guys on this line did so without question.
"They came up big for us (on that shift)," said Bennett. "They give us valuable shifts and minutes. I can't say enough about them, Max Novak, Sam Coatta and Cole Ikkala."
The resiliency of Union is something that must be admired. When the River Hawks scored their second goal, a goal that made it a 2-1 hockey game, Josh Jooris, three minutes later, answered on the power play to give Union its two-goal lead back.
"We can always tell with our team when we are getting rattled," said Bennett. "We made some adjustments from last year. We want our guys sitting down, taking deep breaths and to take it easy. The next shift after a goal is so important."
Last year, Union made it to the NCAAs for the first time, led by Leaman, losing 2-0 to Minnesota-Duluth. Then it watched Duluth win a national title and knew it was so close to beating them, knew that the experience would serve them well if they could get back. They overcame a lot of doubters to get another shot.
"It helps your psyche to get back here," said Welsh. "Last year, just getting here was a celebration, but, this year, we came with a different mindset. If we didn't win two games this weekend it would have been a failure."
It was a whirlwind week. Union, the school of 2,000 students, defeated schools with enrollments of 43,000 and 12,000. And fans made the drive from Schenectady, N.Y., to fill a lot of seats in Bridgeport.
"The support for us has been great all year," said sophomore forward Josh Jooris. "We take a lot of pride in our school, and I am glad to see the support because we feed off of it."
Looking forward into the Frozen Four, the Dutchmen have broken down three important barriers in the last two weeks. Last weekend they won the ECAC tournament title, Friday night they won their first NCAA tournament game in Division I and Saturday they advanced to their first ever Frozen Four. But the goals don't end there.
"We have a mature team," said Welsh. "It's a natural thing; the guys are so calm, cool and collected. Going forward we are looking to win games. We can't get too high on ourselves, as we are on the cusp of something special."
Union used to be known as easy wins in the ECAC and around the country. It had a school president proclaim his pride for having teams win 40 percent of their games.
Now it is carrying the flag for a league desperate to return to the Frozen Four — a league that has been as underappreciated nationally as Union used to be within the ECAC.
And Union is going to Tampa to win — and why not? Ferris State, its opponent a week from Thursday, will see a team that exhibits skill and defensive prowess on every shift. On Friday and Saturday night, the Dutchmen's opponents got important chances, but it always seemed as though a stick was in the lane to deflect it away from their goalie or away from the opposing player that was seemingly wide open.
"The guys in front of me play well in front of me," said sophomore Hobey Baker candidate Troy Grosenick. "They did a great job last night and tonight. I give those guys credit."
Union has come a long way from the depths of a three-win season 12 years ago. Now it is two games from the final unthinkable — a national championship.