When you do something extraordinary, it sometimes takes a while to get the full measure of its impact.
Take the case of the men’s hockey team from the Rochester Institute of Technology and its astonishing run to the NCAA Frozen Four.
Four years ago, while the Tigers were playing their first season as a Division I program en route to an affiliation with Atlantic Hockey, the University of Wisconsin was winning its sixth NCAA title.
That those schools will face one another in a Frozen Four semifinal April 8 at Ford Field in Detroit might seem like outlandish fiction.
Then you see that RIT knocked off the champions of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (Denver) and the Hockey East Association (New Hampshire) en route to the East regional title and you realize this is no fluke.
Still, no one saw this coming, including the RIT players whose primary goal this season was to make the 16-school NCAA tournament field. So when standout senior defenseman Dan Ringwald got a text message from a friend, saying there were some fans waiting to greet the team on its return from the regional in Albany, N.Y., he thought there would be a few dozen.
It was more like a few thousand, as well as a police escort. When the players got off the bus, some were immediately lifted up on the shoulders of fans, bogey-boarding atop the humanity.
“I knew coming in we had a really good team,” center Cameron Burt said. “We knew (the Frozen Four) was one possibility. We just had to work really hard and I think we’ve shown that.”
The Tigers don’t have scholarships or an NHL draftee. They’ve never sent a player to the NHL. They play in a league less than seven years old, one that has never had a Frozen Four participant until now.
So how did they pull this off?
“I think a lot of luck, to be honest with you,” RIT coach Wayne Wilson said. “I realize how difficult it was to get there and there’s really no formula.”
Actually, the Tigers (28-11-1) do have a formula for success. You bring older players — average age is 23 — install a disciplined, aggressive, up-tempo system and demand that they work hard.
“The college landscape has changed over the years,” said Wilson, who captained Bowling Green to the NCAA title in 1984. “We’re very fortunate to have not only good players, but good players that are with us for four years.
“We’re pretty consistent from year in and year out. We don’t lose a lot of players from one year to the next.”
RIT has a good mix of talent and experience throughout its lineup. Ringwald, who leads the highest-scoring blue-line corps in the nation with 11 goals, 25 assists and 36 points, and difference-making goaltender Jared DeMichiel are seniors. Burt, a sophomore center from Detroit, leads the team in scoring (16-31-47) and right behind is junior center Andrew Favot (13-32-45).
The Tigers rank in the top 10 nationally in five major categories: third in scoring defense (2.05 goals allowed per game), fifth in scoring offense (3.60 goals per game), fifth in shots per game (34.77), sixth in power player ratio (21.2 percent) and sixth in shots allowed per game (26.68).
Wilson, in his 11th season at RIT, said his club hasn’t felt any pressure and that it doesn’t see itself as an underdog or Cinderella.
“We are just enjoying this and looking to the next game,” he said.
The Tigers are being compared to Bemidji State, which came out of nowhere to reach the Frozen Four last April. In fact, Wilson has gotten some important insights from that run.
Beavers coach Tom Serratore sent along some thoughts about what his team went through last spring. One is his belief that his players got caught up in all the attention and lost their edge, eventually dropping a 4-1 decision to Miami (Ohio) in the Frozen Four semifinals.
Wilson said he will post Serratore’s observations where his players can see them, but he feels good about his Frozen Four-bound team.
“Right now, we’re in a good mind-set,” Wilson said.