In only their fourth season as a Division I NCAA program and third in the Atlantic Hockey Association, the Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers have won their second regular season conference title as co-champions with Air Force. At 21-11-2 and 20-6-2 in the AHA this season, the Tigers also have completed their third straight winning season as a Division I program.
But while coach Wayne Wilson and his players are very proud of their accomplishments, they are looking to achieve two of the other major goals they set went they started playing at this level -- winning the AHA tournament and playing in the NCAA Tournament.
"This has been a great and surprising season and that would be a great way to cap it off," Wilson said.
Surprising for the simple fact that under the guidance of Wilson, who coached the Tigers for six seasons before the program entered Division I, they have progressed at a rapid pace and adapted to the differences between Division III hockey and the elite level they're playing at now.
"We had high expectations right from the get-go," Wilson said. "I wanted quick, skilled, aggressive teams that were going to challenge all over the ice. I like that style. I like to challenge and go after things and don't like to sit back on things.
"I stressed that we were going to have to get used to the fact that if you make mistakes you can pay a price really fast. There are a lot of talented players and a lot of very good coaches, so things like bad penalties and mental errors have negative effects real quickly. Goals against and momentum changes happen fast too and you have to play 60 minutes of mistake free hockey as much as possible."
While the Tigers' maiden voyage in Division I hockey wasn't exactly memorable in terms of their 6-22-2 record, they competed hard and were in most games. Since then, a chemistry and team motto of hard work and aggressive play has grown stronger.
"I cannot say enough about the players on that first team," Wilson said. "I don't know the number of one-goal games or the number of times we pulled our goalie and lost by two, but there were a lot. For a team that was not playing for anything but pride, that team had a lot of character and competed every night, right to the last game. I was very impressed with the mental makeup of the first team.
"The second year we set goals of trying to win the league and it was surprising that we were able to accomplish that. But you could see why in the way the team continued to build an identity and it's grown stronger year-by-year."
RIT had another solid season last year, going 19-12-6, but they were eliminated in the conference tournament by Air Force, which beat them 5-0 in the semifinals. This season, the Falcons flew out to a 13-0 start, so winning another regular-season conference championship didn't seem promising for the Tigers. But as Air Force came back to earth, the Tigers went on a run of their own, winning 11 straight from Dec. 6-Jan. 25. RIT split a two-game set with the Falcons to close the season, allowing their rival to gain a split of the regular-season title. But this current Tigers squad has bigger goals on its mind.
The four seniors who were there for that AHA Tournament loss to Air Force and there in the first Division I season would like nothing better than to finish what they started and win the AHA and play in the NCAAs.
"This year is unlike any of my other years here. You got two balanced power plays that get equal amounts of time and goals. The rookies that have come in stepped into scoring roles like Brenner, my linemate, and the unsung heroes like Taylor McReynolds who love to do the small things that go unnoticed, like blocking shots. There is more energy for everyone to get involved and be happy and everyone contributes in their own ways." -- RIT's Brennan Sarazin
"My first year here was the first year in D-I," said senior captain Brennan Sarazin. "We had nothing to play for, but a lot of the guys had a ton of heart. I think it has progressed all the way through and the rookies then and now seniors carried that through. You can see it in the way the juniors, sophomores and even the freshman play and act. This is a really great group of guys we have here now, just like then."
This group is also well balanced on the ice. Sarazin leads the team with 35 points and is followed by freshman defenseman Tyler Brenner, who is second in scoring with 30 points, and sophomore forward Andrew Favot, who has 28.
"This year is unlike any of my other years here," Sarazin said. "You got two balanced power plays that get equal amounts of time and goals. The rookies that have come in stepped into scoring roles like Brenner, my linemate, and the unsung heroes like Taylor McReynolds who love to do the small things that go unnoticed, like blocking shots. There is more energy for everyone to get involved and be happy and everyone contributes in their own ways."
"Everybody is contributing equally," Brenner said. "Everyone isn't looking at one player to do everything and that helps out a lot and takes pressure off of everyone else. The scoring and roles are very balanced."
The Tigers are hoping their balanced attack can help them erase the memory of last year's loss to Air Force and help complete this four-year ascent to the NCAA tournament.
On Campus clips
-- The North Dakota Fighting Sioux (22-11-5, 17-6-4 WCHA), defeated host Wisconsin (16-15-4, 13-11-3 WCHA), 2-1, and captured the 2008-09 WCHA regular-season championship and MacNaughton Cup. For the storied North Dakota program, the title was a conference record 14th, first since 2003-04, and first for fifth-year coach Dave Hakstol, who has already guided his clubs to four consecutive NCAA Frozen Fours. ... Here are the other regular-season conference winners: RIT and Air Force (Atlantic), Notre Dame (CCHA), Bemidji St. (CHA), Yale (ECAC), Boston University (Hockey East). ... The NCAA has announced the participants for the fourth annual Frozen Four Skills Challenge, which will be held April 10 at the Verizon Center in Washington. The competition will be conducted in an East versus West format with each team having six position players, and two goaltenders. Competitions will include puck control relay, fastest skater, hardest shot, rapid-fire shooting, accuracy shooting and penalty shot. The men's selection for the East squad is highlighted by the nation's leading scorer, Bryan Leitch
of Quinnipiac, who had 53 points this season. The remainder of the male skaters on the East squad include Brock Bradford
(Boston College), Matt Gilroy
(Boston University), Zach McKelvie
, (Army), Matt Pierce
(Mercyhurst) and Joe Vitale
, (Northeastern). The two goaltenders are: Keith Longo (Hobart) and Alec Richards
(Yale). The West team is led by Alaska Fairbanks goaltender Chad Johnson
, who is second in the nation in goals against average. The other goalie is Jeff Lerg
of Michigan State. The six male skaters include Justin Bostrom (Minnesota), Greg Flynn (Air Force), Patrick Galivan
(Western Michigan) Chad Rau
(Colorado College) Tyler Scofield (Bemidji State) and MacGregor Sharp