DESPITE SNUB, ADRIAN CAN HOLD STICKS HIGH

After a season of winning, winning and winning some more, all they could do was sit. This is what happens with Big Dances. You wait for an invitation.

The Adrian Bulldogs, a remarkable collection of first-year NCAA Division III hockey players, almost all of them freshmen, were riding a 20-game winning streak and carrying a nearly eight-goals-a-game average. They won their league. They won their conference tournament. They won nearly every time they took the ice.

Now all they needed to win was a committee’s favor. They waited in the locker room. The coach and captain checked a computer in an office.

Finally the news came Sunday night.

The ice was kinder than the committee.

“When we found out that we hadn’t made it, I went out and spoke to the players,” said Ron Fogarty, the coach who assembled this collection of strangers who put down the ice in their rink last fall and who wore the very first Adrian College hockey sweaters and who, in less than six months, had become tight as brothers. “They were really disappointed. I told them in a couple of days we’ll be able to look back at all the great things that transpired this season.”

And then he left the room, allowing them to say good-bye on their own.

Fifteen minutes later, he came back to shut the lights and did a double-take.

“They were all still sitting there, just as I’d left them. No one had moved.” Looking out for the status quo

Denied, but not destroyed. You can’t destroy what little Adrian did this year. Not with a snub. Not with a bad decision by an NCAA committee that should have known better.

Come on. How much more does a team have to do? No other team selected was riding a 20-game winning streak. No other team had won 26 games. There were six automatic bids – Adrian’s conference wasn’t one of them – and four at-large selections to be made, and none of those at-large picks had a record close to Adrian’s. Three of the four didn’t even win their conference tournament.

“It comes down to four coaches and an athletic director talking about it,” Fogarty said Monday. “I have to trust they made the best decision.”

He’s being diplomatic. That’s his job. Not mine. For whatever reason, the selection committee was in no hurry to reward a first-year team, perhaps because it might make more established teams seem – can we say – underachieving?

But if it’s strength of schedule, who else is Adrian supposed to play? By the time the school got its program running, many established schools had their schedules set. So Adrian won its league and defeated almost all comers, trounced most of them. You can only beat who’s in front of you.

Besides, a 26-3 record – and no losses since November – should not be denied. The NCAA should celebrate seasons like that. Instead, the committee chose, with its likely last pick, a team from Wisconsin-Stout, ranked behind Adrian in one national poll, with an 18-8-3 record and a defeat in its tournament.

No knock on Stout. But the NCAA blew it.

“How many does Adrian have to win to get an invite?” Fogarty was asked.

“Twenty-seven, I guess,” he said, chuckling. A memento for the trophy case

And what are you gonna do? They can’t take away what the little-team-that-could accomplished. In one season, a tradition was born. In one season a rink went up, and students found a new favorite activity. In one season, with no athletic scholarships, a group of recruits – some of whom had never seen the school before arriving – earned the right to hang a championship banner, even if it’s not the one they wanted.

Last fall, when the team put down the ice, they froze a lucky quarter inside it. At the end of this month, when they take out the ice – yes, these kids work coming and going – they’ll put the quarter in a trophy case somewhere.

Meanwhile, life goes on. Fogarty checked the schedule and confirmed that yes, at 4:30 p.m. on Monday, the community free skate was still scheduled, and couples could hold hands and skate to music in a rink that could have housed an NCAA champion.

“We might play ‘We Are The Champions’ once or twice,” Fogarty joked, “but then we’ll put the regular music back on.”

Denied, but not destroyed. The Adrian Bulldogs were what college sports should be about. No snub changes that. And history knows it.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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