MADISON, Wis. — Mark Zengerle sat in his apartment on a late November night with his three roommates, scrolling the college hockey rankings on a computer. He scrolled. And scrolled. And scrolled some more, until he reached the bottom of the page.
There was no escaping reality. The numbers told the story of a miserable 10-game run to start the season.
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Of the 59 teams in NCAA Division I hockey, Wisconsin was ranked 56th.
“We were just like, ‘Oh my God,’ ” said Zengerle, the Badgers’ junior center. “We weren’t expecting this at all. We thought we were going to be a contender this year for everything.”
The Badgers had every reason to believe this would be a special year only six weeks earlier. They began the season ranked No. 15 in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine preseason poll. They returned 15 of their top 16 scorers and the team’s top two goaltenders. They were welcoming one of the best freshman goal scorers in the country in Nic Kerdiles.
And now, Wisconsin’s 1-7-2 record threatened to shatter the team from within.
“I personally felt that it was kind of tough to go outside,” said junior forward Michael Mersch, one of Zengerle’s roommates. “People would be like, ‘Hey, what’s wrong with the hockey team? What’s going on?’ I didn’t really have an answer for them. That was something I was looking for.”
A team that can truly appreciate success must also understand what it’s like to climb from the bottom. And this year’s Wisconsin team embodies that mantra better than perhaps any of the 16 programs remaining in college hockey.
Yes, through all the hiccups, the Badgers are still skating.
Wisconsin (22-12-7) has won six consecutive games to unexpectedly crash the NCAA tournament party. The Badgers, seeded fourth, will face No. 1 seed UMass Lowell (26-10-3) in Manchester, N.H, in the NCAA Northeast Regional at 3:30 p.m. CT Friday. Wisconsin, somehow, is two victories from reaching the Frozen Four.
The Badgers are here after winning three games in three days to capture the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Final Five title for the first time since 1998. In the process, they earned an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
“When you can battle through adversity like that, through ups and downs in a season, it really shows the character of the guys in the locker room,” Kerdiles said. “We got a good test in the beginning of the year. I think we overcame that part and now we just have four more games to go.”
Kerdiles in particular faced an especially trying season. Before his college career could even begin, the NCAA suspended him for 10 games due to a violation of amateurism rules. That decision created line changes Wisconsin wasn’t expecting, but it represented only part of the team’s struggles.
Wisconsin assistant coach Bill Butters left the team midseason to pursue a life in ministry. Senior center Derek Lee missed several games, including two following a scooter accident in October. Freshman winger Morgan Zullnick sat out 18 games with a thigh injury. Zengerle broke his finger and missed six games. And freshman defenseman Eddie Wittchow missed five games with a shoulder injury.
“You name it, it pretty much happened to us,” Mersch said. “We kind of had to take all those things in.”
The turning point in the season, players say, was a two-game series at fifth-ranked Denver on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. Kerdiles finally was cleared to return, and the team suddenly began playing with the confidence and skill level most expected from the outset.
Wisconsin tied Denver, 1-1, and beat the Pioneers, 3-1, the following day to take three of four possible points. Kerdiles assisted on Wisconsin’s first two goals in the victory.
“We’ve been fighting for our lives for a while here,” Badgers defenseman John Ramage said. “Back in the Denver series, we were 1-7-2, and if we didn’t start playing well, our season would have been done real early.”
Since Kerdiles’ return, Wisconsin has gone 21-5-5 to ascend to No. 8 in the top 25 poll, although Kerdiles wasn’t willing to take any credit for the Badgers’ turnaround. Still, statistics indicate otherwise. In those 31 games, Kerdiles has more points (32) and more assists (22) than any player on the team. Overall, Mersch leads Wisconsin with 36 points, including a team-best 23 goals, which rank fourth in Division I. Zengerle has 32 points and Tyler Barnes 30 points.
Joel Rumpel’s improved play in goal also has helped turn the tide. His goals-against average of 1.85 ranks sixth in the country, and his .933 save percentage is ninth. Rumpel has taken over the majority of minutes after splitting time with goaltender Landon Peterson earlier in the season.
“It’s nice to play more,” Rumpel said. “You get into more of a rhythm. That confidence is what a goaltender needs. This later part of the season, it’s been nice to get in a few more games. It just gets easier as you start to play more.”
This marks the sixth time since head coach Mike Eaves took over the program in 2002 that Wisconsin has reached the NCAA tournament. But given the horrendous start to the season, it is perhaps the least probable trip. And that realization has made this accomplishment much sweeter for Badgers players.
“There were definitely doubts,” Zengerle said. “There’s no question about that. But there was still a little bit inside of everyone that we knew we could be a good team.”