PITTSBURGH — It’s not always easy to pause and appreciate the components of a run to the NCAA title game in the moment.
There’s a lot of work left for St. Cloud State to earn its first national championship Saturday against UMass. But when asked to step back and look around at what he and the Huskies have done in getting to the last game of the season, senior center Will Hammer could smile.
“It’s been incredible,” he said Friday. “It’s been a great journey. It’s not over yet. We’ve got one more.”
If Hammer has one more in him, it will make the contrast between his regular season and his postseason more remarkable.
Hammer’s goal off a Minnesota State defensive-zone turnover in Thursday’s 5-4 Huskies victory in the Frozen Four semifinals was his second of the postseason. He has one more goal in a six-game playoff run than he did in 24 games to that point.
His three goals for the season have matched his Huskies career high set in 2019-20. The St. Cloud, Minn., native played only four games over his first two seasons before gaining a larger role as a junior.
That wasn’t just given by coach Brett Larson.
“It was up to him to earn it,” he said. “I think everybody can see he’s earned it. And he’s done more than earn it. He’s turned into a key piece to our team night in and night out. To see him get on the score sheet and be rewarded for all his hard work is really just frosting on the cake. Because I know he takes pride in all the details and how hard he works. But it’s still nice to see a guy like that score a goal once in a while.”
Hammer also scored the go-ahead goal against Boston College to send St. Cloud State to the Frozen Four.
It has been an NCAA Tournament to remember for Hammer, who, Larson said, seems to make whoever’s playing with him have a better performance.
The Huskies have an underdog mindset going into the national championship game against UMass on Saturday at PPG Paints Arena, Hammer said.
“We’ve made it to the playoffs a couple times and we’ve been that No. 1 seed,” Hammer said. “And I think it’s been a little different this year where we’ve had that underdog mentality and we’ve stuck with it. We’re going to keep going with it. I think that’s treated us well so far.”
And it’s different this year with Hammer clicking from the fourth line. He had a procedure earlier in his time at St. Cloud State to address an abnormally fast heartbeat and had to work his way into a deep lineup.
“It’s nice to see him playing the right way and it’s finally being rewarded,” St. Cloud State forward Kyler Kupka said.
The step back that Hammer took to briefly look at the big picture before the Huskies get back into the moment of competing for a championship included a nod to the difficulties this season has brought.
The Huskies used being left out of the preseason rankings as a motivator to prove everyone wrong.
“It’s been incredible, especially just with this weird year and how it’s been with COVID and where we started at the beginning of the year to where we are now,” Hammer said. “It’s kind of hard to wrap your head around it. But I’m proud of the guys. I’m proud of what we’ve done this far. We’re not finished.”