For nine seasons, beginning in 1989, a popular sitcom called Coach aired on ABC. Perhaps you remember it.
It starred Craig T. Nelson as a character named Hayden Fox, the head coach of a fictional Division 1 football program at Minnesota State University -- the Screaming Eagles. Nothing about the show seemed remotely realistic, but it was entertaining.
Turns out, Minnesota State University does indeed exist.
Want proof? Take a trip to Worcester's DCU Center on Saturday night. There you'll find the third-seeded Mavericks (no, they're not actually nicknamed the Screaming Eagles) face No. 2 UMass Lowell in a men's hockey Northeast Regional semifinal in the NCAA Tournament. The puck drops at 7:30.
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"I'm glad it's not fictional; I wouldn't have a job," said Minnesota State head coach Mike Hastings with a laugh during a press conference in Worcester on Friday. "It's one of those things where, yeah, I'm that old. I remember (Coach) vividly."
The Minnesota State campus is located in Mankato, roughly 85 miles southwest of the Twin Cities. The Mavericks (26-13-1) captured the WCHA championship with a 4-1 victory over Ferris State last Saturday.
This will be Minnesota State's third NCAA appearance as a Division 1 program. The Mavericks lost both of their previous tourney games, including a 4-0 defeat last year to Miami of Ohio.
"Experience, as we all know as adults, is the best teacher that you can have," said Hastings, who is in his second year in Mankato. "Whether it's positive or negative, we had an experience going to an NCAA regional. It didn't go real well for us last time. I thought we had a pretty good start to the game. We hit a couple of posts, didn't score on the power play, and Miami was Miami. It's not brand new for us anymore. The idea of getting on a plane and getting to a national tournament -- a regional -- we have a lot of guys that have done that. That doesn't guarantee us any different result, we're going to have to go out and play."
Junior forwards Matt Leitner (12 goals, 32 assists) and Jean-Paul Lafontaine (20 goals, 20 assists), and senior forward Johnny McInnis (21 goals, 16 assists) lead the Mavericks' scoring attack. Boston native McInnis is the lone Massachusetts product on the roster. Goalie Cole Huggins sports a 1.91 goals-against average and a 21-7 record (six shutouts).
Minnesota State has won four straight and has a 13-game unbeaten streak.
UMass Lowell, meanwhile, features a senior class that endured a five-win campaign as freshmen. It's been a remarkable turnaround for the River Hawks under third-year coach Norm Bazin. UML (25-10-4) is one year removed from a trip to the Frozen Four, and last Saturday captured its second straight Hockey East championship.
"It's a great group of guys," Bazin said of his team earlier this week. "You have to start with the captain, Josh Holmstrom. He's a resilient person who's stuck with it and has become a great captain. You go down the list to (Derek) Arnold and (Doug) Carr and a lot of other guys who've put a lot of sweat equity into this program and they deserve a lot of credit."
Holmstrom, a senior from Colorado Springs, Colo., sophomore A.J. White and senior Joe Pendenza (Wilmington) have been a handful for the opposition as linemates in recent games. The trio have combined for 26 goals and 39 assists on the season.
Pendenza said he's looking forward to playing so close to campus.
"It's going to be a huge benefit for us. Actually, these three straight trips we've been pretty local and we've been able to have buses come down from campus, and I think we're going to be having a couple more come down, and we'll have season ticket holders driving to the games. We have a great fan base. They travel with us wherever we go. We went to Pittsburgh last year and they travelled there ... too, so it's a huge advantage for us to be this close and we have to use it to our advantage," he said.
For UML, offensive balance has been the key.
"I think you have to give them a lot of credit for where they're at," said Hastings of the aforementioned UML line. "Everybody grabs stats sheets. You look at power play goals, goals, assists. I just think they have some chemistry right now. As a hockey coach, we always say you don't want guys thinking too much, because if they're thinking they're slowing down. They play real fast. You can't say one guy is just a shooter, they're interchangeable. When you have that type of chemistry, the line is extremely dangerous. They look like three very hungry hockey players."
Hastings also noted that goals will be very difficult to come by for his squad against the human wall that is sophomore 6-foot-4 goalie Connor Hellebuyck.
"He's good. He stops about 94-percent of everything he sees, and some that he doesn't see," Hastings said. "He's about as calm and collected as you'll see. He does have a lot of people around him that are good. But he does what he's supposed to do. He puts pucks to areas that aren't real dangerous. At 6-foot-4, he's a stay-at-home goaltender. He makes you beat him."
The winner will meet the winner of Saturday's other semifinal between top-seeded Boston College and fourth-seeded Denver in the regional championship on Sunday at the DCU (5 p.m.). The regional champ will punch a ticket to the Frozen Four in Philadelphia on April 10.
Without an abundance of flashy superstars, Bazin likes his team's chances.
"We may not have the all-star top scorers in the league, but we have a lot of guys who care about the program, that have a great work ethic and they are very detail-oriented," Bazin said.
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