In a figurative sense, it's been a long journey for the Williston State College men's hockey team this season.
Now that journey continues - literally - as the Tetons (15-13) embark on a 1,600-mile trip to Rochester, N.Y., for the 2013 NJCAA Men's Ice Hockey Championship tournament, looking to capture the program's first title in its brief two-year history. It would also be the school's first championship.
The Tetons earned the No. 2 seed in the four-team tournament and play third-seeded Hudson Valley Community College (N.Y.) at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday. WSC is the only team from outside of New York.
Williston State freshman Al Maul, left, looks for someone to pass the puck to as Minot State’s Mitch Peeke closes in on defense.
"It's a great feeling for the school and of course the community," WSC coach Seamus Gregory said. "We put a lot of hard work into this year to get back (to the championship tournament). It's a great feat for the sophomores who return and the rookies to get a chance to play at a national level."
WSC clinched its second consecutive trip to Rochester by sweeping a best-of-three series with Dakota College at Bottineau to defend its Region XIII title. The Tetons crushed DCB 10-1 at home before completing the sweep on the road with a 6-4 victory. WSC won its three regular season meetings with the Lumberjacks by a combined score of 30-2.
The lack of NJCAA opponents in the area forces the Tetons to schedule opponents with greater size and more experienced athletes. Being a junior college, WSC's roster is made up of 14 freshmen and 12 sophomores.
This year's slate featured 17 games against American Collegiate Hockey Association Division I-III teams. Among those were second-ranked Arizona State University and third-ranked Minot State University.
"Nationally, we feel like we've played the toughest schedule of all the junior colleges in the country," Gregory said. "That is only going to make us better at the end of the year. The reason we made it so difficult was last year we felt like we weren't where we needed to be and our recruiting needed to be stronger."
The Tetons faced off against the Beavers five times, winning the first matchup before dropping the next four, one of which came in overtime after leading late in the third period.
Six of WSC's losses this season have come against ACHA Division I teams, but the Tetons have three wins against those opponents and three losses have come in overtime or in a shootout.
"It's been an up-and-down ride when we play against the better-caliber teams, but we feel like we've made some noise and feel like we've gained the respect of our opponents," Gregory said.
A key to the Tetons' success is their speed. What they lack in size, they more than make up for with their ability to get up and down the ice. Their speed allows them to compete with more talented teams by attempting more shots on odd-man rushes. In WSC's two region playoff victories, the Tetons recorded 100 shots on goal.
"We have a lot of team speed," Gregory said. "Defensively, we're much stronger than last year. So speed and defense and discipline are our three main things that make us productive."
There is plenty of tournament experience in the field as three of the four teams were playing for a national title last year - HVCC is the newcomer - including tournament host and defending champion Monroe Community College (N.Y.). WSC fell to MCC in the championship game last year after defeating Eric Community College in the semifinals. Two of the three Tetons selected to last year's all-tournament team - Jacob Radermacher and Brandon Passley - are still on the roster.
The Tetons fly out of Williston early Wednesday morning.