It has been done once before. In 1970, the Cornell Big Red, coming off the graduation of Ken Dryden, went undefeated (29-0) and claimed an NCAA title.
This weekend, RIT can repeat that achievement. The Tigers are 26-0-1 and hosting the NCAA D-III Final Four.
Only one team in Division III, the Fredonia State Blue Devils of 1994, has come this close. Fredonia was 28-0-4 heading into the semifinals, when it lost 4-3 to eventual champion Wisconsin-River Falls.
Home ice may not help RIT either. In the 15 prior Division III championships, excluding Plattsburgh’s 1987 vacated title and the 1993 neutral ice finals, the home team has won just five times: Bemidji in 1986, Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 1990, Plattsburgh in 1992, and Middlebury in 1995 and 1997.
In more than a few cases, coaches have been heard to reconcile a first loss late in the season by saying, “It’s good that we lost one now. There’s too much pressure going into the post-season undefeated.”
RIT coach Wayne Wilson doesn’t subscribe to that theory.
“I can’t think of a reason why any loss would be good,” he said. “We embraced the challenge of being undefeated, and are proud of what we have accomplished so far.”
However, even considering the potential place in history for his squad, Wilson downplayed the notion of a perfect or near-perfect season.
“I don’t think it matters at this point,” he said. “Once you get to the postseason, records don’t matter than much. It was a nice thing, but now we’re focused on winning a championship. It’s all about that now.
“If we accomplish all of our goals, I’m sure it will be something to remember later on. It gives us the opportunity to be a special RIT team among a lot of great RIT teams.”
The Tigers have twice won national titles, as a Division II program in 1983, and in Division III in 1985. RIT has made it to the final four on four other occasions, advancing to the title game two more times, but coming up empty. Where will this team rank when all is said and done?
“I’ve been coaching against RIT for 20 years,” said Lebanon Valley head coach Al MacCormack, who was also an assistant at Elmira and head coach at Cortland State. “And I’ve never seen an RIT team as good as this one.”
People are saying the same thing about Wisconsin-Superior, that this YellowJacket team may be the best among many for this powerhouse program. But Wilson is currently focusing on his next opponent, Wisconsin-River Falls.
“There are a lot of similarities between our teams,” said Wilson. “They move the puck well, their defense and goaltending are very strong, and they run an umbrella power play like we do.”
The RIT coach also had plenty of good things to say about his other two potential opponents.
“I haven’t seen Superior, but any team that has won that many games and beaten Elmira twice in their own building has to be very strong. That’s our single common opponent, and they handled Elmira in a tough building, while we got away with an overtime win.”
And Plattsburgh? RIT shocked the Cardinals 8-2 in Plattsburgh in early January.
“That won’t happen again,” he said. “We played the perfect game and Plattsburgh was not the same team that night that they usually are. I don’t think anybody will ever beat them like that again.”
At best, Wilson will be celebrating a national championship this weekend. At worst, he’ll be reflecting on a 26-2-1 season and a nomination for the Edward Jeremiah Award, given by the American Hockey Coaches Association to the Division III coach of the year. He was one of the finalists announced Thursday.
“It’s not about the coaching,” he said. “It’s about the players. I’ve got some very, very good players.”