April 7, 2009 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Beaver Players Trying to Re-Focus

by Matthew Conyers/CHN Staff Writer

The perplexed looks and constant questions are nothing new for Bemidji State. At this point, it's just part of the routine.

“We’ll be at an airport and people will see our hats or jackets and come up to us and ask, ‘Are you a football team or a baseball team or a basketball team?” said senior Brandon Marino. “Then we’ll tell them where we are from and it's always, ‘Where in the world is that?’”

After the Midwest Regional, those types of questions have been limited. As has been well-documented already, Bemidji State shocked the entire tournament field with upsets over top-seeded Notre Dame and third-seeded Cornell to qualify for the national semifinals for the first time. The victories — two exclamation point routs — have quickly thrust the easy-going Beavers into the limelight like never before. Over the past 11 days, Bemidji State has watched the pre-practice and post-practice scene get a little more chaotic.

“We’ve had about three or four more cameramen waiting for us after practice the last week,” Marino said. “People from all over the state were coming.”

In a country that loves underdogs, Bemidji State falls neatly into the given role at precisely the perfect moment. With the economy stuck in a dismal downturn and unemployment rates spinning in the same direction, sports fans need a surplus of good human interest stories.

For a few days in the country’s capital, a good portion of the conversation will be devoted to a team that resides more than 225 miles from Minneapolis in the heart of Northern Minnesota. The campus, which has an enrollment of nearly 5,000, is nestled along a lake of the same name and part of a town that has a population of 13,419 (by 2007 census). That alone makes the story good. The hockey team makes it better.

The Beavers’ lone captain, Travis Winter, hails from St. Cloud, Minnesota, and has only seven points but serves as the nerve center of the team. Bemidji has a top-heavy first line that has 102 points and the only non-freshman goalie in the Frozen Four.

But this is a team that flies end-to-end and is centered on the same overall team goal: fore-checking pressure.

Bemidji State is this season's George Mason (basketball) or Fresno State (baseball) or Appalachian State (football). Better yet, they’re Seabiscuit with skates. In fact, the nearby George Mason pep band will moonlight for the Beavers in D.C.

“We’re not offended by being the underdog,” Marino said.

Bemidji State has certainly struck a core with the media. Already, the Beavers have been featured prominently in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. In Bemidji, the love is even more intense.

“It's hard to walk in this town without someone saying congratulations,” Winter said. “It's a special place to play and a special program. The support is unbelievable.”

When Bemidji State returned from the Midwest Regional, its fan base had a special greeting planned.

“We flew back at 2 a.m. and 100 people were outside the airport waiting for us,” Marino said. “It's been amazing to see the impact were making on people who aren’t even playing.”

From the start, this particular group wanted that attention. Well, maybe not exactly. Correction, they wanted to be the group that created the excitement.

“This is a pretty mature hockey club with a great group of guys and we all had that one common goal in mind in our very first meeting this year,” Winter said. “We wanted to win the conference and then the conference tournament. We knew once we got to the NCAA tournament anything could happen, and we wanted to be the Bemidji State team that wins that first game.

“So far we’ve taken care of all those goals and now hopefully we can win it all.”

Winter and the rest of the group had a feeling early that this year could be the one for a smaller, lesser-known team to sneak into the Frozen Four picture.

“All year long there wasn’t really a team that stuck — there was not a hands down best team out there,” Winter said. “It was a tournament you wanted be in and anyone could win.”

Boston University might argue with his assessment, but the point is, there was no team securely locked in from the start of the season.

Despite all the talk of being an underdog, the Beavers certainly don’t believe Miami will treat them like one.

“I don’t think that is the case with Miami,” Marino said. “We won’t be able to sneak up on them. I know they’re not going in like 'This is an easy game against Bemidji State.'”

As for Bemidji State, it's approaching the National semifinal with the type of fight and will that would make Herb Brooks proud.

“We’re not going to Frozen Four to lose a game — our goal is still to go and win everything,” Marino said.

“We’ve got a good team and we can play with anyone in the country. We’ve tasted the flavor of success and we want more now.”

The country certainly knows as much. What they’re still grasping is the style of play Bemidji State will bring to the Beltway.

“We’re a very quick team with lot of skill up front and the key for us is to limit turnovers and continue to be opportunistic,” Winter said. “I think its going to be an up and down the sheet and very exciting.

It’s going to be a one heck of a fun game to play in.”

But Bemidji is not naive on the task either. It knows Miami poses a giant threat with their balance.

“We know what were getting into and we have to be all over the puck,” Marino said. “We’re high pressure and make opponents skate with use. To use that to our advantage we have to stay out of the neutral zone and tire out opponents in their zone.”

Where Bemidji won’t be entirely comfortable is off the ice in Washington. Barely any of the players have ever been to the East coast let alone Washington.

“It will be cool to play there and be that close,” Marino said, “but we’ll be focused and let the parents do the sight-seeing.”

The Beavers have a goal left to attain and dare they disappoint their new-found fans.

“It's a unique and fun experience to see how many people have been effected by this,” Marino said. “It's kind of surreal 'cause we’ve only won two hockey games.”

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