Hard Work is the Only Way in Big Rapids
Ferris State's Grit a Strong Reflection of its Community
by Joe Meloni/CHN Staff Writer
TAMPA, Fla. When Ferris State returned to Big Rapids, Michigan — its home in the center of the state — after the Catamount Cup, it faced a major question regarding the fate of its 2011-12 season.
The Bulldogs began the year on a 9-2-1 run that included a sweep over Miami. However, that impressive 12-game stretch, which positioned FSU well as the end of the first half approached, quickly became a memory. A trip to Fairbanks for a pair with Alaska resulted in a split that begat a 2-6-0 slide that ended the first half and crept into the second.
Rolling back into Big Rapids off losses to both RIT and Vermont in the Catamount Cup in Burlington, Vt., the FSU players met to assess the last eight games and their season moving forward. Despite the struggles, the Ferris State players and coaches remained confident. Losses happen to even the best teams. Working through those runs and coming out better ultimately separates champions from runners-up. That part, the work, was never an issue for Ferris State.
"It wasn't a matter of recreating the wheel for us. It wasn't a problem with our systems or our players," FSU coach Bob Daniels said. "Everything was fine. I think the hard work that we've all put in has given us a confidence that transcends the overall talent of our team."
Knowing his teammates as well as he does, Ferris State goaltender Taylor Nelson knew the slide would not define the season for his club. From the earliest point of the year, and even his time with the program, Nelson has seen a commitment to work, a dedication to improvement, that only grew with this year's installment of the Bulldogs.
In Big Rapids, Mich., ardor is the standard. Looking at the community his program calls home, Daniels takes pride in being just another group of blue-collar guys working for each other. The Big Rapids community reciprocates, regularly filling Ewigleben Ice Arena. While packing a building with sub-2,500 capacity may not seem particularly impressive, the consistently large, boisterous crowds are an ode to the culture Daniels has created in Big Rapids.
"It's a strong agricultural community. There's a factory area. They're hard-working people," Daniel said. "That goes into our program and our whole university, just the culture that surrounds out program. I think (Big Rapids is) very appreciative of the team during wins and losses. We're a hard working team, and we're very representative of our area."
Finding the players to fit that mold isn't always easy, but the Ferris State coaching staff knows the benefit of bringing them to Big Rapids. Occasionally, the Bulldogs will miss out on talented prospects potentially interested in the program, because of this focus on competitiveness and tenacity. While this can be frustrating, Daniels believe it's for the best in the long term.
"Drew Famulak, our associate head and recruiting coordinator, is adamant that the players we bring in are highly competitive," Daniel said. "He makes it abundantly clear to them during the recruiting process that they must be highly competitive. If that scares off a kid, then so be it. We'd just prefer to let them go. The expectations coming into our program aren't negotiable."
This focus resulted in a club capable of analyzing its own play after the disappointing showing at the Catamount Cup. Nelson looks back to a team meeting where, to a man, the Bulldogs questioned who they were and their own potential.
"After the holiday tournament in Vermont, there was a meeting that was held. It was just the guys talking about the season and what we wanted from it," Nelson said. "We didn't want to be a team that's happy being .500. We want to be a team that can win a championship. That was our goal to start the year. We want to win, and we want to win championships. Other teams would be lying if they told you that wasn't their main goal."
Refocusing on the cohesive play that led to the 9-2-1 start resulted in even more impressive run. From Jan. 6 through the season finale against Western Michigan on Feb. 25, the Bulldogs posted a 11-0-4 record, culminating in the program's second CCHA Regular Season Championship. Despite a letdown against Bowling Green in the CCHA Tournament, Daniels again knew his club would recover and play its best hockey in the NCAA Tournament — that 15-game run solidifying Ferris State as a certain recipient of an at-large bid.
A pair of strong performances against both Denver and Cornell in the Midwest Regional in Green Bay, Wisc., followed the struggles in Detroit. FSU's reward for their efforts is a national semifinal appearance against Union Thursday afternoon. The insistence on defensive excellence and hard work earned the Bulldogs a ticket to the Frozen Four for the first time.
"I'm so happy for these kids. They deserve to be here," Daniel said. "It's good for them to see what can happen. That's not to say we're satisfied. We took some time to celebrate getting here, but we know how hard it was to get here."
The Bulldogs will be prepared for their showdown with Union Thursday afternoon, ready to work as hard as they did two weeks ago — as hard as they did in the time between their games. As hard they have since arriving at Ferris State Uniersity in Big Rapids, Mich. — where anything less is unacceptable.