By RICKY LINDSAY, Editor-in-Chief
The University of Michigan-Dearborn hockey team’s best season in nearly a decade came crashing down in one of the worst, most humbling ways possible.
The Wolverines were slaughtered 8-1 by Central Oklahoma Friday in round two of the ACHA National Tournament. Three Wolverines were ejected in a negligent second period which saw several aggressive interactions with opposition and officials. The level of talent separating them from defending national champion Central Oklahoma — who boasted many foreign-born players — was evident.
But for as poor as UM-Dearborn’s exit from the national tournament went, optimism still exists for why the team’s best years are ahead.
Barring attrition, the Wolverines return all but two players from this year’s roster — Ryan Kelly and Kevin Filthaut. This is a significant chunk of the team’s future success and should allow head coach Chris Haltinner to sleep well at night.
Leading the charge is captain Ryan Urso, who has two years remaining and was by far the team’s best defender. Second-year player Jeff McFarland is right up there, playing a full season after missing time in the second half last year.
Andrew Palushaj and Nate Ferris were able to break out in year two to become formidable options at wing and goalie, respectively. And who could forget Tyler Groat, the freshman who quickly evolved into a phenom and No. 1 scoring threat for UM-Dearborn before being shelved in January due to injury.
But it isn’t just a returning roster that can help UM-Dearborn take the next step; that it played down the stretch against some top-notch, national tournament teams is a reason for optimism.
The Wolverines could have folded once Groat went down in the second of four games against Adrian. It’s never easy for a team to replace its top scorer, especially when the pressure of winning becomes heavier as the season reaches its end.
But they managed to buckle down and play team-oriented hockey centered around strong goaltender play. UM-Dearborn knocked down Adrian and Davenport — two highly-ranked teams — in the GLCHL tournament, proving it’s a force to be reckoned with next season.
And, most importantly, its play down the stretch helped seal its first national tournament appearance for the first time since 2007, which is a huge accomplishment in year three of the Haltinner regime.
Although it wasn’t the result the team had hoped for, it’s something it can build upon. Haltinner can now go on the recruiting trail with his Block M in hand, sell kids on the chance at competing for lots of hardware and championship rings, and for the first time in his three years as the team’s head coach, have those claims legitimized.
And the experience for the current players of just playing in win-or-go-home hockey games on the league’s biggest stage is significant. They’ve been there now. They now know what to expect, and what it takes, to play championship-quality hockey.
So while the 7-goal loss to Central Oklahoma still stings, there’s no reason to remain somber. The Wolverines are in their best situation in over a decade, and next year, it could be them hoisting a national tournament trophy on the big stage.