“Can this be off the record?” The fan, clad head to toe in RIT-spirited gear, kept his voice low as he confided, “I’m calling Denver to win it.”
After the betrayal to his own home team, it’s no wonder they wanted to remain nameless. Yet who could blame them? Though it might hurt to admit (and hindsight may allow a lot of people to bury themselves in self-denial), it’s an easy bet that many of the folks in orange had predictions that similarly ended the Tigers journey in Albany on Friday, March 26.
The Denver Pioneers have won seven NCAA championships, the second highest total all-time. This year they were the top seed in the East Regional, as well as being ranked second in the nation. The RIT Tigers, who have never been to the NCAA Division I tournament before, were the bottom seed in the East, and seeded 20th in the nation as of March 22. To make matters even more lopsided, the Pioneers’ squad boasts no less than 14 NHL draft picks (to the Tigers’ zero). Real life is generally not so clichéd, but even Disney, the king of sugary, feel-good cinema, could not have plotted a more classic underdog setup.
Whatever their own private doubts might have been, a surprising number of RIT fans — including much of the (in)famous Corner Crew — made the pilgrimage to Albany to back their team. With most of them crowded together in a narrow column of brazen orange on the bleachers, the heat of the rink was oppressive, but it paled in comparison to the feeling of imminent doom that seemed to permeate many of the Tigers’ faithful. Although they’d made the three hour drive to Albany to see them play, many seemed to be bracing for a sound defeat at the Pioneers’ hands.
It took five minutes before everything changed.
At 5:02 in the game, first year Finance major, Chris Tanev, intercepted a Denver pass and sunk a gorgeous corner shot, putting the Tigers up 1-0 before an ecstatic (and shocked) crowd.
Despite RIT’s history of an overwhelming shots-on-goal advantage even in the face of defeat, Denver tested the Tigers’ goaltender, consistently racking up attempt after fruitless attempt. As if Jared DeMichiel, a fourth year Business major, didn’t already have a place in RIT’s Men’s Hockey Hall of Heroes, this game earned him a 10-foot tall, golden statue of an acceptance. Of the 11 first period shots that came at him, he blocked every single one. Some sent him sprawling on his back, others were snatched with lightning-fast glove grabs; dazzling the crowd. Despite a strong offense capped by a power play toward the end of the first, Denver stayed scoreless, thanks mainly to DeMichiel’s heroics.
The first intermission came, heralded by the alternating Corner Crew shouts of adulation (for RIT) and loathing (for Denver). Swept up in the excitement, many of the Crew and other fans asked no one in particular if they could believe it; the answer, coupled with the general feeling of disbelief, was a resounding no. Despite pre-game statements of the teams’ evenness by both coaches, the second-best team in the country was now scrambling to catch up to an unknown NCAA newcomer.
But perhaps the Tigers themselves were not as surprised as those watching them. RIT went into the game with a ten-game winning streak behind them, whereas the Pioneers had just come off two recent losses.
Coach Wayne Wilson, however, was ambivalent about how the momentum would impact the game.
|President Destler joined the hundreds of RIT student gathered underneath the Sentinel early on Sunday Morning.
“I think that the winning streak is helpful for us, but I think that the fact that they lost two games prior to playing us is just going to wake them up, to be honest with you... I think we’re going to play a bit more determined team than [we] have been in the past couple games,” he said in an interview prior to the game. Despite this, he was sure that the Tigers’ nerves were steady and up to the task: “I would say the team’s feeling eager, and even-keeled ... I like the way we are right now.”
Wilson similarly expressed a desire to stay the course with the method of hockey RIT has relied on all year, and not break out a wild, new secret weapon. “We don’t want to try to become some other team, change our system ... We just want to play our game,” said Wilson. For him, it wasn’t all about the victory. The Tigers were here to play the best game they could, and if they won, so much the better.
After a scoreless fifteen minutes of play, the second period began. Though it seemed like something would have to give soon, it was not to be — both goalies threw their weight around and stonewalled any further scoring. The orange section became very nervous indeed — many fans claiming imminent cardiac arrest — when the Pioneers brought the puck to the wrong end of the ice and kept it there, brutally pressing with shot after shot after shot for nearly ten minutes. DeMichiel came up big again, tallying 15 more saves and not letting the puck past once. (The Crew bowed in deference as appropriate.) To his credit, Denver’s goalie, Marc Cheverie, shaped up and kept the Tigers out of the net. After a hard-fought and tense period, the game broke for the second time; the third period would start with RIT up one to nil.
Even with the stragglers arriving over the course of the two periods, there were hardly any seats filled outside of the strip of Tiger fans. It didn’t matter — it just kept everyone who cared about an Orange victory within cheering range of each other. In the RIT section of the grandstand, the feeling of camaraderie was nigh-unstoppable at this point. It didn’t matter if two fans had never seen each other before: everyone was a part of the same huge, dysfunctional, piercingly loud family. Countless high-fives were exchanged; raucous cheers were shouted in unison; backs were slapped in fraternity. Everyone was on their feet; everyone was shouting; and everyone was delirious with happiness.
At 11:35 into the third period, Cameron Burt, a second year Business major, took a textbook feed and whipped the puck past a scrambling Cheverie. RIT was now up 2-0.
At this point, all bets were off. The pundits and sportscasters had told us that Denver was going to curbstomp a helpless RIT, send them running with their striped tails between their legs. But heading into the second half of the third, RIT was racing towards a shutout victory over a heavily favored opponent.
The stands (or rather, stand) roared with approval, and the Corner Crew did what they do best, as they had been throughout the game: mercilessly insult the opposition.
The unbridled energy tapered slightly when Denver’s Joe Colburne (a first-round NHL draft pick) finally got the puck past DeMichiel only two short minutes later, racking up the solitary point for Denver in the game at 14:34. Though the cheers subsided a bit, the fans were not put out; still, the thin nature of the lead they enjoyed was becoming apparent.
The last minute was dragged out, kicking and screaming as it left. Every play was met with gasps and groans of dread from the fandom. At the instant that the timer clicked 00.0, the triumphant Tigers piled onto DeMichiel in a frenzy of congratulations. At last, it was over; RIT had pulled off an unbelievable, historical upset. The Corner Crew chanted and screamed. Everyone in orange was wearing either a smile of disbelief or a sneer of vindicated gloating (international sign for “Suck it, Denver”).
When I said to give him a 10-foot tall statue, I really meant 15: Jared DeMichiel pulled off an inhuman 39 saves against what was, by all accounts, one of the deadliest offenses in the country. It’s a lofty number that ties his previous personal best, in a game more than a year ago — a December 2008 match against Air Force. Without discrediting the rest of RIT’s team, it’s safe to say that the win rests squarely on his shoulders.
“We keep getting better and better every year,” a visibly exhausted but happy DeMichiel said in a press conference after the game. “Our team has fun. We try to give 100 percent effort for 60 minutes.”
Later on the rink, the University of New Hampshire (UNH) followed RIT’s lead and came out on top over their favored Cornell opponents (ranked No. 2 going into the East Regional), setting up a match of the underdogs on Saturday. RIT, still hyped on adrenaline from their David-Goliath face-off, remained resilient and dominated against UNH for the entire game, pulling off a 6-2 victory. The win earned the team a spot in the Frozen Four in Detroit, where they will play number three ranked in the nation, Wisconsin, on April 8.
RIT’s coach, Wayne Wilson, was naturally beatific over the successful weekend for the Tigers.
“We went through some tough times with losses at the beginning of the year. We [also] had some games that we won that we did not play well. Minnesota State was a wake up call [for the team],” said Wilson said. “I couldn’t be prouder than where we are right now.”