OGDEN -- For the first time in five years the Weber State hockey club team is heading to the national tournament -- making good on a preseason goal and setting a new one in the process: bring home a national championship.
The Wildcats breezed through the weekend's American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) Western Regionals, logging an 8-3 win over Denver University on Saturday and a 5-2 win over in-state rival University of Utah on Sunday afternoon at Steiner Ice Center.
The performance netted them a ticket to Saint Louis and the national tournament opening March 15.
WSU coach Joe Pfleegor described the atmosphere in his locker room after clinching the tournament berth.
"I'd take that scene over a million dollars," Pfleegor said. "I was really happy for them. There were all kinds of emotions flying around. It was just a great thing to see."
Weber State finished the regular season in fourth place in the Western Division with a 26-10-2-1 record after a grueling 39-game season that dealt the Wildcats their fair share of attrition through injuries and academic ineligibilities. Pfleegor said the team gelled from the beginning though and he knew, despite any setbacks along the way, his guys would make it to nationals.
"It really takes a special group of kids to accomplish something like this," Pfleegor said. "They held together, we played through it, and here we are."
After being named head coach over the summer, Pfleegor tirelessly recruited and put together a squad around solid veterans like team captain Braxton Green and senior center Josh Giudice.
One such recruit was freshman Dax Hobbs, who was a standout with the Ogden Mustangs during the 2011-12 season. In his first year as a Wildcat, the freshman scored 43 regular-season goals in 34 games; good for second-best in the league, just a single goal behind Bobby Jones of Dallas Baptist University.
Hobbs said helping the older guys he looks up to get to the national tournament was something he was particularly proud of.
"It's an honor," he said. "Growing up and playing in Ogden I've always looked up to the Weber State program. To finally get the opportunity to play here and then be in a position to help get the team to nationals, it's an unbelievable feeling."
Weber State burned through the first half of the season, boasting a 12-4-2 record. The strong first-half performance ranked WSU ninth in the nation among Division II schools, a feat that Pfleegor says is incredible considering the Wildcats weren't ranked at all last year.
Weber hit a rocky patch in the second half and the team started losing players to injury and academic ineligibility. Pfleegor says players continued stepping up. Guys like goalie (and Ogden native) Craig Peterson, who took over midseason and helped WSU pull off some of their biggest wins of the season, including regionals.
"I was interested to see how he would do," Pfleegor said. "He came in under tough circumstances and has really done his job well."
Pfleegor says depth has also served the team well. Being able to get both offensive and defensive production from three solid lines continues to help WSU win games.
Weber's top line, comprised of Green, Hobbs and Jeremiah Holmes combined for 105 regular season scores including 10-of-13 WSU goals over the weekend. The trio also logged 200 total points over their 39-game schedule.
"We're really clicking right now," Green said. "I think everyone is excited and we're sitting pretty good right now."
Green, in his senior year, having never been to a national tournament, says it's hard to believe the way the program has turned around in such a short time. He credits Pfleegor's recruiting and leadership, but says the biggest change has been how the team has become more than just a group of players. Something he said was once again reinforced after Sunday evening's win.
"It was pretty emotional," he said. "I've never been on a team like this before and it's pretty crazy after the past three years of struggling. We're seriously like a family. Now that we've made it to nationals though, the goal is to win a championship."
After convincing wins over strong teams in regionals, Pfleegor is more than confident in his team's ability to be a serious contender for the national title and says they easily have the talent, but more importantly they have the chemistry.
"I really like our chances," he said. "If you can bring all these personalities together and get them to play as one, you're not just going to win games, you're going to win championships."