RIT Looks to Slay More Giants
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
NCAA Tournament overall seed: 15
NCAA Tournament thus far: Won East Regional (2-1 win vs. Denver, 6-2 vs. New Hampshire)
NCAA Championships: None
Last NCAA Frozen Four: None
NCAA Frozen Four semifinal opponent: Wisconsin (Thursday, 5 p.m. ET, ESPN 2)
For all the talk of respect, it is hard to fault those who gave RIT little chance. The players on the team, quality as they are, didn't get recruited heavily by bigger schools for a reason. Atlantic Hockey was 8-41-4 in non-league games this year for a reason.
So — putting aside the nitwits who put down smaller and/or non-scholarship schools just to be sophomoric — there's good reason for reasonable pundits to pick against RIT, last week and now in Detroit.
But clearly, what we've seen, is that it's not impossible. There's something to be said for an older group that has played together for a while, coming together as a unit — the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts.
And clearly the disparity is not as it might appear on the surface, either — especially when you have a goaltender playing as well as he is, and a team without one teenager on it.
"I think watching [the success of] Air Force the last couple of years just made us more hungry," RIT senior defenseman Dan Ringwald said. "We've had a big rivalry with them the last couple years. ... This is the result of five years of hard work. Even the guys before us, they had a tough year where they were on the road for 75 percent of the games and I think ever since then we've gotten a little better, the guys have gotten a little hungrier, and hopefully we can continue that."
RIT lost to the likes of Clarkson, St. Lawrence, Minnesota State and Colgate this season in non-league play. Then went out and defeated Top 10 teams like Denver and New Hampshire in the NCAA Tournament, reaching the first Frozen Four for any Atlantic Hockey team.
Now the Tigers have to contend with Wisconsin, a team that's been near the top of the polls all year, is on a great roll, and — like Denver — has two Hobey Baker Award finalists.
But not impossible.
"We don't think about the underdog role, or David vs. Goliath," RIT goaltender Jared DeMichiel said. "We don't care about that. We just worry about ourselves, we want to give Atlantic Hockey the respect it deserves, and we want to also prove to the nation that we can play, that we have a fun squad, great coaching staff, all 25 guys."
As Ringwald and coach Wayne Wilson is quick to point out, the team doesn't get to play those non-conference games at home, just like the other teams in Atlantic Hockey, and like many teams in the ECAC for most of its non-league games. It's a fact of life in NCAA athletics that those kind of non-conference arrangements take place — it's economics. But it's true that the results, therefore, need to be taken with some grain of salt.
"I think we just had bad luck early and got had to figure out their roles," DeMichiel said.
So RIT gets on a run in its conference, gains confidence, and suddenly a pieced together band of 25 guys, overlooked early in their career, have caught lightning in a bottle. They have shown that — while not easy — it is possible for once-overlooked players to continue to improve themselves. And if you get enough of those kinds of players, a get good goaltending and coaching and maybe a little magic and luck, that this kind of thing can happen.
"There's a lot of good teams out there," Wilson said, "and they're not coming from major conferences. A program like ourselves, we're not losing guys to the pros. Our guys are four-year players — I think we've lost one player early to the pros in my 11 years — and they graduate, and it's nice to have a team that you feel like you're going to have for four years. There's a lot of learning to be done, and our players are focused on RIT, and not where they're going to be in their next stop."
Whatever the case may be, the Tigers are better off not stopping to ponder these kinds of philosophical musings.
"Wins like this on the national stage obviously help our league as a whole ... and we take great pride in that," Ringwald said. "The 30 guys in the dressing room believed it, and we expected to win, and still expect to win. The outsiders didn't give us a chance, but we take that in stride and still approach the game the same way."
The thing you must know about RIT's wins in Albany — in case you didn't see them — was that RIT played like it belonged. These weren't fluke goals and hanging-on-for-dear-life endings. RIT controlled play for large portions of each game, and were every bit as physical and skilled as their opponents.
The offense is led by Detroit native Cameron Burt, who has written quite the amazing story to play a Frozen Four in his hometown. Those odds are astronomical, but here he is — after scoring the game winner against Denver — and he has 16 goals and 47 points this season. Andrew Favot is 13-32—45, and Ringwald anchors the backline with 11 goals. The other top defenseman is freshman Chris Tanev, a late bloomer if there ever was one, shooting from 5-foot-8 to 6-2 in the span of a few years. He scored the Tigers' first goal against Denver, and sits at a plus-36 on the season (plus-4 in the NCAAs), tops in the nation.
"We don't care about that underdog stuff. We just want to play," DeMichiel said.