- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009

Had the Bemidji State Beavers not cruised into Verizon Center this week behind a blizzard of sentiment and north country kitsch, the Miami (Ohio) RedHawks might well have monopolized the underdog spotlight in the Frozen Four.

The school had never reached the Frozen Four, like Bemidji State, and also sneaked out of its region as a No. 4 seed, the lowest in each of the four four-team regionals.

But for a team that has never been this far, the RedHawks certainly don't seem to know how to develop Cinderella street cred.

After going 33-8-1 and securing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament last year, Miami lost all-conference defenseman Alec Martinez and goaltender Jeff Zatkoff in early departures to the Los Angeles Kings. But the RedHawks pulled the underdog-averse move of reloading and going further the next year. And in Thursday's national semifinal, against the darling of the tournament, they did what contenders typically do: They took the underdog and bullied them.

At the heart of it all is a group of six freshmen, barely old enough to convincingly wear the mustaches the RedHawks chose to grow for the playoffs, that has propelled Miami to the verge of its first national title. The RedHawks' four freshman defensemen and two first-year goalies haven't always been as smooth replacing Martinez and Zatkoff as they were Thursday night, but their maturation has been the bedrock of Miami's playoff run.

“We thought we had some talent. But there's one element you cannot give freshmen, and that's experience,” coach Enrico Blasi said. “We have taken our lumps. But in the process, I think [they] have become pretty schooled in what to expect and how to play. You can be the greatest coach in the world, but you can't give them that. They have to experience that when they come in.”

If the RedHawks had an adjustment period, the numbers barely show it. They entered Thursday with the nation's second-best penalty kill at 89.6 percent. Freshman goaltender Cody Reichard was ninth in the country with a 2.02 goals-against average; fellow freshman Connor Knapp was 11th at 2.08. In three NCAA tournament games, Miami has given up just four goals.

The freshmen showed their defensive grit again Thursday, when they helped hold Bemidji State to 13 shots in the game's final two periods, only allowing a power-play goal in the second period. Defenseman Matt Tomassoni also keyed the RedHawks' first goal by forcing a turnover in the defensive zone and making a slick outlet pass to Andy Miele, who hit Tommy Wingels in front of the net.

“In late February, we all started making a lot of progress together,” defenseman Chris Wideman said. “We had this youthful energy. All of us enjoyed coming to the rink every day, and we just kind of went with it. We took it and ran.”

Of the six, Wideman had the most uncertain path to the RedHawks' lineup. He had made a verbal commitment for the 2009-10 season and had planned to play another year of junior hockey for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders of the United States Hockey League.

When Martinez signed with the Kings in May, Blasi called Wideman to see if he would come a year early. He had 24 hours to get a transcript to the university's admissions department. Blasi told him that with a good summer, he would have a chance to win a spot in the lineup.

“That motivated me a lot,” Wideman said.

He wound up leading the team in assists with 26.

One of the RedHawks' most skilled offensive defensemen, Wideman is part of a diverse group of freshman blueliners. He and Tomassoni are only 5-foot-10 and have more skills moving the puck than Will Weber and Cameron Schilling, who are Miami's two biggest defenseman at 6-4 and 6-2. Schilling was a walk-on; Weber, a second-round draft pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2007, is one of the highest-profile recruits Blasi has landed at Miami.

However the six freshman arrived, they're likely to play a major role in the RedHawks' continued growth into a national power. That metamorphosis could be complete as early as Saturday night with a win in the national championship game, which would cement the fact that Miami - and the six freshmen fortifying its defense - are all grown up.

“I can't even put into words what it would mean to do that,” Weber said. “We'd set the bar as high as it could go.”

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