Ferris State Exudes Quiet Confidence
Bulldogs One Win Away from National Championship
by Joe Meloni/CHN Staff Writer
Tampa, Fla. Advancing through the NCAA Tournament takes more than talent.
It requires a little luck — shots that find posts instead of twine or pucks that bounce an inch left instead of half an inch right.
It demands opportunism — taking advantage of any opening an opponent provides and stopping a scoring chance after even the briefest moment of hesitation.
As these elements come together, their residue leaves confidence. Teams that play for and win championships understand the strengths and play within systems that position them for victory. As these wins accumulate, teams foster a greater belief in their game. They know that if they do as their instructed, follow the principles preached by their coaching staff, those other elements — luck and opportunism — will fall into place.
For Ferris State, belief in their game is higher than ever. The Bulldogs defeated Union, 3-1, on Thursday in a national semifinal game. Both teams feature a methodical style, focused on using sound positioning and execution to generate scoring chances and possession.
At times, the game looked like the most deliberate of chess matches. As the teams' defensive mastery emerged as the theme, frustration became a question, as players looked to force scoring chances. Ferris State avoided such frustration without much problem. Drawing on its experience thus far in the NCAA Tournament, the Bulldogs knew if they remained true to their system, they would find their chances.
"We have to play our game, because that's the way we win hockey games," junior goaltender Taylor Nelson said.
"We have to do that to be successful," he continued. "If we take a night off, there are things that aren't going to go our way. We've been going through those same points every single practice. Coach says those same three things. We have to block shots, come back hard and get pucks on net. Those are things that we've had to do to be successful. (Thursday) was a constant reminder that (hard work) is what got us here."
Even after Union took a 1-0 lead at 7 minutes, 56 seconds of the second period, Ferris maintained its confidence. Adhering to their most basic strategy eventually led to their game-tying goal. On the power play, Kyle Bonis and Aaron Schmit swarmed Union goaltender Troy Grosenick, creating traffic in front. Schmit eventually poked the puck through Grosenick's legs to knot the game, 1-1.
The Bulldogs used this momentum to become the aggressor. Even as it built in their favor and they eventually took a 2-1 lead, pucks still went to net, players still followed. Shots were still blocked, and forwards still back-checked as the puck went the other way.
Bonis, Jordie Johnston and the Bulldogs' other high-skill players revel in their role as the main producers. The remaining Bulldogs accept their charges without question. Confident that carrying out their own orders will result in wins.
"Guys have really accepted their roles," Nelson said. "You look at Aaron Schmit. He scored two big goals tonight, but he's a guy that's going to play physically, smart and be a tripod in front of the net."
Schmit's case perhaps illustrates Ferris' success as well as any. Shifting from defenseman to forward earlier this season, the imposing Schmit has provided a physical presence to the FSU forward lines.
For Schmit, his role as a grinder, creating space in front of the net and battling along the walls became a two-goal performance in a national semifinal.
"There are no selfish players on our team," Schmit said. "Everybody knows that they have to block shots. They have to get in passing lanes. They have to get the puck deep. They can't make blue line turnovers if we're going to be successful. Knowing all of these things, the guys have really bought in."
Despite the gravity of the moment, Schmit allowed himself a brief moment of reflection after his first goal.
"I was sitting on the bench thinking 'this is the first goal in Frozen Four history of the Ferris State program,'" he said.
While Schmit and his teammates exemplify the mentality that guided FSU through Thursday's national semifinal, their coach has worked for now 20 seasons to instill this demeanor in his clubs. Since they arrived in Big Rapids, Mich., both Schmit and Nelson have noticed improvements throughout the program and growing confidence in their play, all built by FSU coach Bob Daniels and his staff.
"He's been with this program for a lot of years," Nelson said. "Our assistant coaches have been with this program for a lot of years. These guys have been with the team for a long time. For us to get where we are, not only for us, but for the guys that have put in countless hours and years for this program, I can't say enough."
Led by their grizzled, veteran coach, the blue-collar boys from Big Rapids are one win away for the program's first national championship.
"Obviously, the big difference is the players (from less successful teams)," Daniels said. "I give the kids credit. We give them the gameplan, and they execute it. The last four or five years, we've been an upper-tier team in the CCHA, so we've had a lot of players embrace it. But, right now, I want these guys to embrace the moment. This is a team of really no superstars."
Despite less skill and a less attractive playing style than most teams in the NCAA Tournament, the Bulldogs' success has bred confidence. Quietly manning their posts and fulfilling their obligations, they're fully aware that playing Ferris State hockey is good enough to win a championship.
"We have to come in confident," Nelson said. "It's quiet confidence. We're not cocky. We're not conceited. We're quietly confident, knowing that we've gotten to this point. Our opponent will be a team that's gotten here too. It's going to be two great teams battling it out for the national championship. We've played against teams with all sorts of styles this year. I just like ours better."