Willets a bright spot for Ferris State as Bulldogs look to find way into WCHA playoff picture

Paul Willets has compiled 17 assists and 19 points to lead Ferris State’s offensive attack this season (photo: Ferris State Athletics).

Entering Saturday’s road matchup with Michigan Tech, Ferris State had lost nine games in a row.

The Bulldogs had already suffered through a six-game losing streak. It’s fair to say that the 2019-20 has not gone according to plan.

Ferris State coach Bob Daniels feels that his team suffered through a perfect storm of events.

“I’m really appreciative right now that if you are going to go through a season like this, where the wins are really elusive, it’s a great group of guys to go through it with,” Daniels said. “There’s no give up. They continue to work really hard.

“We’ve been on the wrong end of a lot of injuries, too. It seems like whenever we go to get some guys back from injury, other guys go out.”

One bright spot for Daniels and the Bulldogs has been the play of freshman defenseman Jake Willets. Through 27 games this season, Willets leads the team in assists (17) and points (19).

Daniels likes what he sees out of the Erie, Mich., native.

“He’s exceeded our expectations,” said Daniels. “Whenever you recruit someone, obviously there’s things you like about that player, but I guess what we didn’t realize, or at least I didn’t realize, was how well his offensive game was going to transfer here.”

At the start of the 2018-19 season, Willets was not really even on the radar of Daniels’ staff. They were enjoying the freshman campaign of freshman defenseman Cooper Zech, who became the first freshman defenseman in school history to lead the team in scoring, and, somewhat ironically wore the No. 25 that Willets inhabits now.

Willets, on the other hand, was fresh off a five-goal, 12-point season with the NAHL’s Fairbanks Ice Dogs.

Early in 2018-19, having joined the Amarillo Bulls, it became clear that Willets had taken the next step in his evolution as a player. He went on to score 17 goals and 41 points, demand the attention of Daniels’ staff and leave the head coach with a decision: bring him in early, or let him play another year of juniors.

Four months into his freshman year, it appears Daniels made the right choice for both the player and the school.

“He had another year juniors and we contemplated having him play another year, probably would have been in the USHL,” said Daniels. “At the end of the day, we needed a defenseman and we thought, ‘OK, well maybe we can get some games out of them and he can develop here.’

“Lo and behold, we got more than just a few games out of him. We’ve gotten a lot of really good hockey out of him.”

For Willets, the chance to play in Big Rapids is something he has wanted his whole life.

“I grew up playing high school hockey and we always used to play a tournament up at Big Rapids every Thanksgiving,” he said. “So it was one of the schools in my home state, that’s like three hours away. It’s a school I always wanted to go to since I was younger, so I couldn’t be happier to be here. It’s been great ever since I got here, so it’s been awesome.”

A positive for Willets is that he loves playing at the Ewigleben Ice Arena, which has seating on three sides and can get very raucous when the Bulldogs are playing well.

“We’ve got great fans,” Willets said. “When you have small rink like that, it gets pretty loud. When everyone’s going, it’s a fun little place to play in.

“The bigger rinks are always cool to play in, but when you get a venue like that, it’s awesome. The fans can get into it.”

Daniels looked for ways to ease the youngster’s path into college hockey, but injuries, among other factors, forced his hand. After Willets sat out the opening game against Colgate, he was in the lineup the following weekend at Miami, where he picked up his first career assist on senior forward Oskar Andren’s goal in the third period of the Friday night game.

After being held off the scoresheet the following night, he racked up seven assists over his next five games.

Willets scored his first career goal in a 4-1 loss to Bemidji State on Nov. 16 and then scored his second on Nov. 30 at Alaska Anchorage. The second goal was his first career power play goal, and came as a result of getting a chance to be a part of the Bulldogs’ first power-play unit.

Daniels loves what tools Willets brings to the man advantage.

“He’s kind of roves around a little bit out there,” Daniels said. “He’s got a really good shot, and he can hit a one-timer. There’s a lot of guys that can shoot the puck pretty well, but he can get it off right away. So right there, you’ve got to honor that.”

For Willets, the chance to see ice time on special teams as a freshman is an honor he never expected to get so soon.

“I feel like my best part of my game is the offensive side,” he said. “I feel like being given that chance on the power play, I have to prove myself. It can be taken away at any minute.

“I like that they have faith in me and are able to trust me on that first unit with the guys that we have.”

The grind of the college hockey season is something that coaches have to monitor, especially for freshmen, who have not experienced it before. Daniels felt that Willets, along with the rest of his teammates, hit the proverbial wall starting with the Great Lake Invitational tournament in Detroit at the end of December.

While things had been rough during the streak, Daniels felt the Bulldogs went into their weekend against Alaska on Jan. 17-18 and played better. Even though the hard work did not pay off with wins, the team was rewarded on Saturday against the Huskies.

“We felt like we were one bounce away from breaking through finally,” said Willets. “We finally got that one (Saturday).”

Willets and the Bulldogs have their work cut out for them over their final four weeks of the season. With Saturday’s victory, they stand at 7-18-2 overall and 5-13-2-0 in WCHA play, good for 17 points. They trail the Seawolves by two points, but have six straight tough matchups with Northern Michigan, Michigan Tech, and Bowling Green before closing out their season with Lake Superior State on Feb. 28-29.

Daniels believes in his group.

“We know we’re on the outside looking in at a playoff spot right now,” he said. “We want to make the playoffs, but that’s not something we sit around and talk about. Our emphasis right now is on just trying to improve each and every day, be a better team the following weekend than the weekend we just played.

“It’ll all sort itself out at the end of the season.”

Lakers take five of six points

Lake Superior State had a strong weekend at home last weekend defeating the Seawolves 3-2 on Friday and then scoring in the 3-on-3 overtime Saturday to earn the extra point in a 3-3 tie.

Max Humitz led the way Friday, scoring the Lakers first goal and later assisted on the game-winner as they erased a two-goal deficit en route to the win. Saturday, Humitz added another goal, his 16th of the season, to put the Lakers on the board first.

Beavers steal one from Mavericks

After their comeback came up short in the third period Friday night in a 3-2 loss, Bemidji State jumped all over No. 3 Minnesota State Saturday night, taking a 3-0 lead in the third before the Mavericks responded with two straight goals to make things interesting late.

Nick Cardelli led the way for the Beavers, scoring his first goal of the night 2:20 into the middle frame before striking again after the Mavericks pulled Dryden McKay for the extra skater with 50 seconds left in the contest.