The University of Wisconsin men's hockey team heads into the NCAA Tournament this weekend as the No. 1 overall seed, a pinnacle of achievement the Badgers honed in on last summer—or, in the case of their seniors, three years ago.
For UW's seniors—forwards Adam Burish, A.J. Degenhardt, Nick Licari and Ryan MacMurchy, and defenseman Tom Gilbert—heading into the NCAAs as the nation's top-ranked team places them squarely on the edge of realizing a dream they fathomed while suffering through an abysmal 13-23-4 freshman campaign in 2002-03, Mike Eaves's first season as head coach.
Now here they are, four wins away from a national championship.
"We've been talking about it since we were freshmen," MacMurchy said, "… winning a national championship and how good we're going to be in our senior year and how good it would be to go out that way."
"If you take some time to look back at where we've been and what we've been through, to bring this program back to a No. 1 seed overall in the country is pretty special," Burish said.
Three years ago the Badgers finished eighth in the 10-team Western Collegiate Hockey Association. It was one of the worst seasons in the program's storied history.
"During the year we didn't really know any better," Licari said. "It was what it was. I think we just kind of sat down after the season and we were just like, ‘That was pretty brutal.' That was the bottom line."
Gilbert said that freshman season came as a shock. This was Wisconsin hockey. The Badgers were not supposed to have seasons like that.
"It was definitely good for us to learn from because we weren't going to let that happen again," Gilbert said. "We were going to buy into what Coach Eaves was saying to us, the systems, and just build from that year on. That's absolutely what happened."
Eaves's and his staff's message for UW has always been to aim for the national championship. But they understood that it was not going to happen overnight, and even for Eaves it was difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel that first season.
"Every year you bring in new players and they have to mix and match and blend and flow," Eaves said. "And you have a plan with doing that and you hope that happens, but at that time you're not sure because you don't know the kids and how they are going to come together."
Now, here they are, gearing up for one last push for a national championship. They have finished third, third and second in the WCHA the past three years, and have reached three straight NCAAs. At a press conference Sunday, Burish and MacMurchy were asked if winning it all would validate the program's improvement.
After Burish answered in the affirmative, Eaves interjected. His seniors' legacy is secure in his eyes.
"It would be wonderful to stick that flag in the top of the mountain and say that we are national champions," Eaves said. "But that doesn't validate them as people, as student-athletes. They've done a terrific job representing the school."
Asked to expound on those sentiments Wednesday, Eaves reiterated that winning, and potentially securing a national title, was just one part of what has made this senior class special.
"Laying that aside, what they have accomplished as students and people here, they've validated that tenfold," Eaves said. "Because of where this program was… when they got here, and where we, together, have helped bring it… When I look at those young men, they were great ambassadors to helping the current coaching staff get laid the culture that we wanted here."
Granted, this is the seniors' third attempt at winning those four ultimate games. But this time around the feel is dramatically different. Two years ago a young, gritty bunch came out of nowhere to come a 2-1 overtime loss to Maine short of the Frozen Four. Last year the team struggled mightily down the stretch after a great first half of the season and was quickly excised from the NCAAs.
This year the team fell into a second-semester valley, rebounded, and resurfaced, winning five of its last six games to earn the No. 1 ranking.
"We want to go in and win the tournament," Licari said. "We're not here to get second. We're not here to lose our first game. We want to win. We've got four games left, and that's our mentality.
"We do have to take one at a time… We've talked about it and it's something that we need to get done and we're itching for the opportunity."
Earning a No. 1 seed in the Green Bay Regional afforded the Badgers the right to stay in state throughout their national title run.
UW (26-10-3) expects a decidedly home-crowd advantage for Saturday's first-round game against College Hockey America champion Bemidji State (20-13-3) at 1:30 p.m. at the Resch Center in Ashwaubenon.
"At the beginning of the year we knew that we wanted to play in Green Bay and it was up to us to get there," Gilbert said. "We worked hard all season to get here and get this No. 1 spot. We're not going to let down because we want to make it to Milwaukee too."
A win Saturday and the Badgers would face the winner of the Colorado College/Cornell matchup at 4 p.m. Sunday for the right to advance to the Frozen Four in Milwaukee's Bradley Center.
"All the work that we've done our four years, this is exactly where we want to be and we know exactly what we're going to do, how we're going to get to the championship game," Gilbert said. "Nothing's going to stop us."