Every time Williston State men's hockey coach Seamus Gregory is on the ice at the Agri-Sports Complex, he can't help but look up at the 2012-13 championship banner that hangs from the rafters.
It's a permanent reminder of how far the Teton hockey program has come in such a short period of time. Now, in just its third year, WSC heads to Troy, N.Y., looking to repeat as national champions at the National Tournament.
"To win the first one was fantastic, but I think this year would be even sweeter because we've had a real tough schedule and a real tough road," Gregory said. "We only had so many home games and every home game we've had has been packed. You'll never forget the first one, but this year will be even sweeter if we can get it done."
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The Williston State men’s hockey team is seeking its second consecutive NJCAA championship this weekend in Troy, N.Y. The Tetons are the No. 2 seed and play third-seeded Erie Community College in the semifinals on Saturday.
The Tetons (12-11-4) received the No. 2 seed in the four-team tournament and play third-seeded Erie Community College (13-9) in the semifinals on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. If WSC advances, it will play the winner of No. 1 Monroe Community College (18-1-1) and tournament host No. 4 Hudson Valley Community College (10-5-1) on Sunday at 1 p.m.
"We're just taking it shift by shift at this point," Gregory said. "We're hoping the maturity will carry us through and we have a good bunch of leaders on our team. At this point of the year you're not going to take anything for granted and I'm sure the guys aren't going to take anything for granted. The goal is to be playing hockey at this point of the season."
The Tetons swept Dakota College of Bottineau in the Region XIII playoffs to secure their third trip to the national tournament. They were 4-0 against the Lumberjacks this season.
WSC enters the NJCAA Frozen Four with more losses than any other participant, but Gregory said its 11 losses are not indicative of just how good the Tetons are. The defending champions played eight games against the current American Collegiate Hockey Association top 25 and six more against Canadian teams.
"Our administration and our boosters and our supporters have really enabled us to play the toughest competition and bring very good hockey to northwest North Dakota," Gregory said. "We'll play everybody and anybody. We don't shy away from our schedule. Our record doesn't really show how good we are, it just shows the tough competition that we play."
The Tetons finished 4-8-2 in those games with their most success coming against ACHA Division I defending champion Minot State. WSC was officially 2-1-2 against the Beavers, but claimed both contests that went to a shootout. The Tetons took No. 1 Arizona State to overtime in November during an eight-game road trip.
"Having a little more success with Minot gave us a little more confidence heading in and it just shows we can play with the best of the best," Gregory said. "It shows our program is improving and our schedule is improving and we're making a little bit of a name for ourselves in a short time."
Despite its strength of schedule, the Tetons weren't given the top seed, adding a little extra motivation to their return trip to the Empire State. They have plenty of experience, too, with 12 sophomores on the 23-man roster.
WSC's heart lies within its defensive unit. Sophomore goaltender Tyler Ampe has been strong all season, sporting a 3.08 goals against average and a .903 save percentage. Ampe has held opponents to one goal or less eight times this season. The Tetons allow 3.22 goals per game while averaging 3.89.
"We're built from the goalie out," Gregory said. "Our goalie's been on pretty much all year. Our blue line is real heavy and the success we've had against certain programs. Teams have really struggled with our blue line. If our defense can step up and play good team defense, I think we're going to be real hard to beat."
Beavers grab 9th seed in national tournament
The Minot State men's club hockey team has a daunting road in front of it after learning its place in the National Tournament on Monday.
The defending champions are the No. 9 seed and will play the tournament host, eighth-seeded Delaware, in the second round on March 8 at 7 p.m. at Fred Rust Arena in Newark, Del. It's a matchup of the last two national champions.
The Beavers (21-6-4) and Blue Hens (24-9-3) didn't meet this season. Their last meeting came on Oct. 5, 2012, when MSU shut out Delaware 5-0 at Franklin Nelson Recreation Center in Springfield, Ill.
"At this point I know they are a very hard-working team," MSU coach Wade Regier said. "They don't have a lot of guys that are in the top 10 or top 20 in scoring. They have a lot of really good hard-working guys that buy into their system really well."
They do have one in senior forward Mark Zeszut, whose 61 points (36 goals, 25 assists) is fourth-best in the American Collegiate Hockey Association. Zeszut's 36 goals is second behind Washington and Jefferson College (Penn.) freshman forward Andrew Zona (45).
A win against the Blue Hens would more than likely set up a quarterfinal matchup with No. 1 seed Arizona State, but the Beavers won't overlook Delaware as it has a sizable advantage.
"They're at home," Regier said. "That's going to be a huge dynamic because they're going to be prepared for that ice a lot better and we're expecting a massive crowd for our first game. It will be exciting to say the least."
The third seed has won each of the last two championships, which belongs to Robert Morris (Ill.) this year.
Mike Kraft covers high school athletics and hockey. Follow him on Twitter @MKraft23_MDN.