GREEN BAY, Wis. (DETROIT FREE PRESS) -- The Dawgs will have their day in Tampa. And maybe even two.
In the official month of Cinderella stories, the Ferris State Bulldogs stand two victories from becoming the ultimate Cinderella. An NCAA Division II school with fewer than 10,000 on its Big Rapids campus, Ferris State earned its first trip to the Frozen Four on Saturday night. The Bulldogs will seek a championship next month in the unlikely locale of Florida and in the harsh land of Division I, home to traditional hockey behemoths such as Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Boston College.
"Some people say, 'It's a shot in the dark,' but we've been pretty good for a while now," said coach Bob Daniels. "This is kind of validation, if you will."
Ferris State (25-11-5), in only its second appearance in the NCAA tournament, earned its place in the Frozen Four by beating Denver, owner of seven NCAA titles, on Friday and Cornell, owner of two NCAA titles, on Saturday. Each game ended 2-1. The Bulldogs will play Union (N.Y.) in the semifinals April 5 at the St. Pete Times Forum. The championship game will be played two nights later.
"It's a really tight group," said senior captain Chad Billins. "I feel like anyone would do just about anything for anyone on our team. It's very special.
"A special team for our program, and we're excited about going to Tampa."
The Bulldogs saved the Central Collegiate Hockey Association from total embarrassment by reaching the Frozen Four. The CCHA had been considered the power conference of college hockey this season, which is why five teams made the 16-team tournament field. Michigan (a top seed), Michigan State, Western Michigan and Miami (Ohio) all were one-and-done.
In the national semifinals, Ferris State will play a school even smaller than itself and the overall No. 3 seed in the tournament. Union, located in Schenectady, N.Y., has about 2,000 students.
"College hockey has always thrived with the small schools," Daniels said. "It's such a team sport. You can have your star athletes, but if you have a roster full of good players, really good kids, all schools can be successful. You don't have to be a mega school in order to win."
A player-driven group
This was not supposed to be a dream season for Ferris State. The Bulldogs lost two All-Americas from a squad that finished 18-16-5. They were picked to finish in a tie for seventh out of 11 CCHA teams in the preseason media poll.
The conference coaches had even less faith in the Bulldogs, picking them to finish ninth.
"We felt we were going to have a good team this year, but certainly not to this level," Daniels said. "Realistically, by the time we hit Christmas, the team was so self-corrective, such a mature group of kids, they just take it in stride much more than people realize. It got to a point in the second half of the year, as coaches we became more chaperones. The identity is it is a player-driven group, a player-driven team."
On Valentine's Day, the Bulldogs received the most national love in their history. All three major Division I polls had them ranked No. 1, the first such ranking for the school.
The Bulldogs won the CCHA regular-season title for the second time in school history and first since the 2002-03 group that reached the NCAA tournament.
Then came the turning point in the season, when the Bulldogs seemed on the verge of squandering everything.
They were upset by the last-place Bowling Green in the CCHA playoffs in a best-of-three series at Ewigleben Ice Arena in Big Rapids. Daniels worried that a season of success would be destroyed by three days.
The players got sick of being asked what happened against Bowling Green. Perhaps the time off helped them prepare what would follow. Perhaps the embarrassment of losing to the last-place team rekindled their drive.
The success of the 2002-03 team also helped drive this pack of Bulldogs to reach new heights.
Senior goaltender Taylor Nelson recalled seeing the memorabilia on the walls from the 2002-03 squad's NCAA appearance, which ended in the regional finals against Minnesota.
"To say that we surpassed what they had done that season is pretty special," Nelson said. "We achieved a goal here (Saturday). We made the Frozen Four, but we're not satisfied with just being there. We're going to look for two more wins."
There isn't one NHL draft pick on the Ferris State roster. What Daniels has is a group of hardworking guys, led by seniors who have had to push themselves to be better after struggling in their first couple of seasons.
Nelson, who received Midwest Regional MVP honors after making 22 saves against Cornell, embodies the dogged determination that Daniels wants from all his players.
"For Taylor Nelson, it has been four years of ups and downs, like it is for a lot of student-athletes," Daniels said. "It's a testament to hard work. His freshman year, I think he split the games with Pat Nagle. He did it again as a sophomore, and last year as a junior he kind of lost his game. Pat Nagle really came on, he was an All-American for us last year. ...
"Instead of being bitter about it, (Nelson) just worked harder at his game. It's so rewarding to watch him achieve what he's done right now. Very proud of what he's done."
And it was fitting that senior forward Jordie Johnston scored the goal that won the Midwest Regional. He scored 10 goals in his first three seasons, unable to translate into games the success the coaching staff saw him have daily in practice. This season, with two points Saturday, he has 20 goals and 16 assists.
"There was nothing that showed in the numbers that he would have this kind of year," Daniels said. "Yet you could see it every day in practice."
The sequence that led to the game-winning goal seemed to embody the tough times some Ferris State players had before experiencing success.
Johnston scored at 6:54 of the third period to break a 1-1 tie. He finished a 2-on-1, a few seconds after the Bulldogs killed off a 5-minute Cornell power play. Cory Kane started the play, chipping the puck along the boards. Andy Huff then found Johnston on the breakaway.
"It was kind of near the end of my shift," Johnston said. "I was getting a little tired. Andy outwaited the D-man and made a beautiful pass to me, and I kind of held onto the puck a little bit and then put it into the empty net. It was a good feeling."
Daniels said: "It still took an awful long time between the time that goal went in till that horn sounded to end the game."
More Details: On the ice in Tampa
What: Frozen Four, college hockey's championship weekend.
When: Semifinals April 5; final April 7,
7 p.m. (ESPN2)
Where: St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa.
• Union (N.Y.) (26-7-7) vs. Ferris State (25-11-5), 4:30 p.m. April 5, ESPN2.
• Minnesota (28-13-1) vs. Boston College (31-10-1), 8 p.m. April 5, ESPNU.
More Details: The Frozen Four
The NCAA men's hockey tournament was pared down to four teams Sunday, though those teams won't meet in the Frozen Four -- held this year in Tampa -- until April 5. Free Press sports writer Ryan Ford gives you a reason to cheer for each:
The Bulldogs are probably the biggest overachievers headed to Tampa, with nary an NHL draft pick nor a Hobey Baker finalist to be found on the roster.
The Dutchmen, located in Schenectady, N.Y., are led by the tourney's best goalie, Hobey Baker top 10 finalist Troy Grosenick.
The Gophers are hockey royalty, with five national titles. Plus, they'll be joining the new Big Ten hockey league next season.
The Eagles have 22 Frozen Fours; their last came in 2010, when they beat Wisconsin in the title game at Ford Field.
Detroit Free Press