Cinderella? Don't Count on it

Entering the NCAA Tournament, RIT had never won a Division 1 tournament game and the Atlantic Hockey conference had never sent a team to the Frozen Four. So does that mean RIT are underdogs when they play Wisconsin next Thursday? Perception would seem so, but not to those inside the Tigers' locker room.

MADISON - Stuck in reverse the first five games of the season isn't a death sentence by any means, but it can certainly throw a team behind the eight ball. The University of Wisconsin men's hockey team knows the feeling well, as it went winless in its first seven contests of the season before finally finding the win column.

So when members of the RIT Tigers lost their first five games of the season, it was hardly time to push the panic button.

"I knew coming in we had a really good team," sophomore 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."

Doing so in the most improbable of fashions, RIT knocked off the Denver (the champions of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association) 2-1 on Friday night, only to prove it wasn't a fluke the next by blasting New Hampshire (champions of the Hockey East Association) 6-2 to win the East regional title.

RIT (or Rochester Institute of Technology as referred to by some of the 16,773 students) represents the first Atlantic Hockey conference school to make the Frozen Four and will try to continue its 12 game winning streak and amazing story when the play third-overall seed Wisconsin (27-10-4) next Thursday at Detroit's Ford Field in the Frozen Four.

"I don't know if we would be able to handle the media situation if we played this Thursday," RIT Coach Wayne Wilson said. "We'll start focusing on the task at hand next week. Going into last weekend, it wasn't until that second win was completed that we realized what we had accomplished."

The question is: how? How is a team that has no scholarship players, no NHL Draft picks and no former players in the school's 48-year history ever play in the NHL?

It's simple when one hears Wilson explain it and is confirmed when one looks at the roster RIT (28-11-1) possesses. The team's average age is 23, and most of the freshmen arrive on campus after playing most of their careers in junior hockey, making most of them 20. They never jump ship early, choosing to play for four years and graduate, which results in a solid, mature team with great chemistry on all four lines.

"We're very fortunate to have not only good players, but good players that are with us for four years," said Wilson, who captained Bowling Green to the NCAA title in 1984. "It's nice to have players that are focused on us and not where their next stop is going to be."

Statistically, Wisconsin and RIT are quite similar in a few categories. RIT's defensemen are tops in the nation having produced 42 goals, 84 assists and 126 points. By contract, UW is second with 36-88-124. RIT ranks first (3.15 points per game) and Wisconsin second in the nation (3.02) in scoring from the blue line while RIT ranks first (1.55) and Wisconsin third in scoring margin (1.41).

The Tigers have three defensemen - Dan Ringwald, Chris Tanev and Chris Haltigin - with 10 or more goals, and senior goalie Jared DeMichiel (27-9-1, 1.98 goals against average, 92.4 save ratio) has been the key for a team that has limited opponents to two goals or less 26 times this season.

"We came together into a month into the season and ever since then, we've been playing really well together," said Ringwald, who is third on the team with 36 points, of his defense. "We play pretty similar and we always seem to know where each other are. So far, the chemistry has been often and hopefully we can continue that for the rest of the season."

Although the Tigers are in their fifth Division 1 season, and just the third where they were eligible for postseason play of any kind, the program has had success, winning a national title in Division 2 in 1983, one in Division 3 in 1985 and had a 27-0-1 season upended in the Division 3 title game in 2001.

While its their first appearance in a Division 1 Frozen Four, Wilson doesn't believe that his players, or Wisconsin for that matter, are looking at them as underdogs or Cinderellas, as he feels his players are embracing the opportunity.

"You talk to any competitor, you always think they are better than the person they are playing against," Wilson said. "We're looking forward to the challenge, and we're looking forward to take it on."

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