GRAND RAPIDS Everybody loves Cinderella.
And by the end of Michigan”s game against Mercyhurst on the first day of the NCAA West Regional, the Lakers had seen a few new things, made a few new friends and earned a considerable new fan base.
This was all pretty impressive considering that as Mercyhurst came in, it heard people saying that it was the joke of the tournament from a conference, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, that is the joke of the NCAA.
No one will ever know what allowed Mercyhurst to compete so closely with Michigan in a game that redefined the David vs. Goliath matchup. Perhaps Michigan overlooked the Lakers, despite promising that it wouldn”t in the week leading to the game.
Maybe the Lakers were just better than everyone thought they were.
Or maybe, just maybe, the Lakers went out and proved that when you have nothing at all to lose, you can do some amazing things.
“Not a lot of people think the MAAC is for real and this was our chance on a national stage and we wanted to play well,” Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin said. “And we did the things we wanted to do with the exception of winning the hockey game. But I think that if maybe people can take a little more respect for our conference and for Mercyhurst, then we”ll take some consolation in that.”
The Lakers went into last Friday”s affair with little hope of winning the game. But their coach instilled in them the respectable notion that sometimes, albeit rarely, the final score is secondary.
“We thought it was important to be in this game,” Gotkin said. “We thought with the team we”re playing, there was a chance that the game could end early.
“I”m not sure it would be easier to play Michigan in Worcester (site of the East Regional), but playing Michigan in Michigan, we knew it was going to be a very tough game, not to mention the fact that it was in the NCAA Tournament.”
Somewhat more surprisingly, Gotkin got his players to agree with him.
“I”m really proud of the team,” senior Eric Ellis said. “That was the best way to go out. We”re disappointed, but we”re really proud.”
It was difficult to watch the Lakers play in the biggest game in school history without being at least slightly enamored by the heart they showed. Not only did Mercyhurst not bow down to the mighty Wolverines, it actually took the lead twice.
In particular, the St. Cloud fans and the Michigan State fans in attendance were thoroughly excited by the prospect of seeing lowly Mercyhurst advance to the next round instead of Michigan. Every Michigan player laid out by a Mercyhurst check received a loud ovation.
But of course, Cinderella is a fairy tale. Mercyhurst fought the inspiring battle, but bowed out when its coach”s dream could no longer keep pucks out of the net.
And Gotkin was left to wander the bowels of Van Andel Arena, with a smile from ear to ear and a memory that he would never forget.
“It was an uncharted territory for us and it was my privilege to be part of this,” Gotkin said. “It was a great experience for our kids. We don”t know if we”ll be back to this or not. We”re certainly going to try but there”s no guarantee that we”ll get back to this.
“We”re going to lose some very good players to graduation. It was a great game and we have great respect, obviously, for the surroundings that we”re in, with the kind of teams that are here. It really has been Mercyhurst”s pleasure to be part of this.”