OGDEN -- While they fell just short of a national championship, the Weber State hockey club's performance in St. Louis during last weekend's American Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs put the program back on the map.
WSU coach Joe Pfleegor says making it to nationals for the first time in five years was a huge accomplishment, but beating No. 1 seed Marist College 7-6 and taking Illinois State to a 3-3 draw turned heads and thrust WSU hockey back onto the national stage.
"It really takes a special group of guys not only make it to nationals, but really put their heart and souls into this kind of opportunity," he said.
After a grueling two-day, 21-hour bus ride to St. Louis, the Wildcats opened the tournament with a 7-6 overtime win over Marist College on Friday. WSU senior defenseman Reid Mayer played hero, scoring the overtime goal that kept the Wildcats in the win column.
"We've been together supporting each other for the last seven months," Mayer said. "To be able to come up with the play that we needed at that moment and be able to put that first 'W' on the board was absolutely amazing."
The win came with a price though, as the team's most potent threat on offense, freshman Dax Hobbs, bruised his lung in the second period of Friday's game which sidelined the league's second highest scorer (43 regular season goals) for the remainder of the tourney.
"It's always hard to lose a player like that," Mayer said. "You could tell a difference in the locker room when we found out he was out for the rest of the game."
Weber State followed with a tough 7-3 loss to Penn State on Saturday, before taking Illinois State to overtime on Sunday which eventually ended in a 3-3 tie (per ACHA rules).
WSU senior and team captain Braxton Green said while he was happy about getting to nationals, he felt the Wildcats could have easily won all three matches and advanced.
"We definitely could have won in our pool," he said. "We were winning in each game but then penalties killed us in one game and a couple mental breakdowns hurt us. Overall though it was definitely a good experience and I'm still happy with the way we competed."
The Wildcats ended with a respectable 1-1-1 tourney record that just wasn't quite enough to move on. Green, Mayer, Phillip Jennrich, and Robby Knott logged two goals apiece over the weekend, while Hobbs managed to find the net once before being injured.
Pfleegor said the play of sophomore goalie Craig Peterson was another reason the Wildcats found success at nationals.
"We could just have easily been 0-3," he said. "But he really stepped up through the second half of the season, through regionals, and here at nationals."
In addition to the regular tournament games, four Wildcats -- including Green and Mayer -- were invited to play in an exhibition match that pitted ACHA All Stars vs. St. Louis Blues alumni. Green scored a pair of goals in the 6-3 loss to the former National Hockey League players and said it was amazing to be on the ice with NHL legends.
"Getting to play against them was definitely one of the cooler moments of the weekend," he said.
With the tournament behind them, Weber State officially ended the season ranked 10th out of 260 teams in Division II hockey, a feat Pfleegor says is incredible considering the Wildcats weren't ranked at all last year.
"It was such a huge step for these guys and the program in general," he said. "I knew they would go and battle. To watch these seniors and how much fun they had, it really made it for me as a coach."
Of course with the breakout season comes notoriety on the national level, which Pfleegor notes will make his job of recruiting that much easier. Recruiting the next class of WSU hockey players is a cornerstone for Pfleegor's bigger picture: returning Wildcat hockey to Division I status.
"I've already had emails coming in from all over," Pfleegor said. "I'm truly going to miss our seniors and the impact they've had, but May 18 we start all over again and the goal will be a national championship."