As Niagara University's hockey team traveled home Monday from Colorado, its coach, Jason Lammers, used an excitable tone when describing how his players pulled off an unprecedented run a year after winning only 11 games.
"We're still here," he proclaimed over the phone.
The Purple Eagles are, much to the surprise of the 10 other teams in their conference.
Niagara was chosen to finish 11th out of 11 in the Atlantic Hockey preseason poll -- 86 points behind the favorite, Air Force.
That is the same Air Force team that Niagara defeated twice last weekend, including a 5-4 victory Saturday night to earn a spot in the conference semifinals.
The quarterfinal sweep in Colorado Springs thrust Niagara into a matchup against RIT in Harborcenter at 7:30 p.m. Friday, the program's first semifinal appearance since 2013-14. American International plays Robert Morris in the 4:30 p.m. semifinal. The winners meet Saturday at 7:30.
Twenty-two players have scored for the Purple Eagles this season, and seemingly a different player has been the hero in each win.
Junior forward Tyler Hayes, a scratch for much of the season, scored the opening goal Saturday against Air Force. Goalie Brian Wilson made the final 14 saves in the clinching victory. And a freshman, Ludwig Stenlund, is their leading scorer, ranking eighth in the nation in goals per game.
The Buffalo News caught up with Lammers, who is in his second season with the program, to discuss the team's success as it pursues its first Atlantic Hockey tournament title.
Q: Considering the preseason ranking and some of the young players on your roster, could you have fathomed having this type of run?
JL: It's certainly not about the results. It's about the work that the guys are putting in and how well they have committed to each other and how selfless they have been, how hard they compete. We've been through a lot the last couple of weeks. They've had a great attitude. We're getting outstanding leadership and it's just fun to watch them pursue excellence every day. The mission we were handed at the start of the year; we were picked 11th by the league, so it was a nice mission to jump on and the guys have done a great job with it.
Q: How much was that preseason ranking a rallying point for the team, especially early in the season?
JL: Absolutely. It still is a rallying point, right? That's what our peers thought of us, so it's a good opportunity. Again, that is more based on results and we're more about the work we put in every day. That's a credit to the guys for how they have grown as people, students and players here because of the time and effort they put in for themselves and each other.
Q: The seniors on this team have endured some difficult times with this program since they arrived on campus, including winning a combined 11 games in their first two years. Is it particularly gratifying for you to see that they have been rewarded for that hard work you mentioned?
JL: It's a real credit to them. It's been so exciting to see the smiles on their faces and the excitement from their families. It's really been a pleasure to be a part of. They've been the drivers of it because of their desire and what they want. They've done such a great job welcoming so many players to our team and being willing to work with everybody, indoctrinating them into how they want to play and the legacy they want to leave.
Q: You lost five of your first seven games this season and experienced a few other rough patches before the tournament. Was there a particular turning point, or is this run the product of some of your young players developing and becoming more comfortable with the college game?
JL: I don't know if there was a certain moment that turned this around. We, as a staff, and the guys believed all along. There's a life cycle to the season. There are ups and downs. I believe we have the longest season of any sport in the NCAA, so there are highs and lows. The guys have done a great job managing that and have continued to believe in themselves. I really give them a ton of credit.
Q: Your team is 7-4 in one-goal games and won a number of them down the stretch and in the tournament. What has allowed your team to win in those situations?
JL: College hockey is one-goal games. It's always going to be one-goal games. The guys have really understood the expectations in those one-goal games. It's about doing things and not hoping you win and the guys have done a good job of making a commitment to each other, doing the uncommon things that fans don't notice. Stick position, beating out icings. We had a great play at the end of the game at Air Force, in game two, where one of our players, Kris Spriggs, beat out an icing to eliminate a last-second (defensive)-zone draw that we had to do. I don't know if that play gets enough credit, but that's a game-winning play.
Q: How do you instill the importance of those sort of plays that require such attention to detail?
JL: It takes time. It takes practice. It's the leadership group and the guys on the team wanting to do that, wanting to be elite at their craft. Champions are made when no one is watching, right? It's in practice, it's how they eat and sleep. It's how they move. It's a lot more than just hockey. The guys have done a great job with that and it takes time. We're still not perfect.
Q: How much are your players looking forward to playing RIT in Harborcenter, as opposed to having to play such an important game in Rochester?
JL: It's really exciting. It's exciting for our university, it's exciting for our community, it's exciting for our students. It's a real opportunity for the campus to get closer and continue the pride and energy that surrounds Niagara University. Ultimately, we're a hockey team but what differentiates us is we grow men as a hockey program and as a university. We get to do it in front of our home fans, which is awesome.
Q: What are your thoughts on how Stenlund has handled the grind of his first season?
JL: The results, the points, are there. Not a lot of people come to practice, right, but how hard he works in practice. How committed he is to being a player. How bad he wants it. He's been a real leader for us, even for a young guy. He's earned the opportunity that people want to follow him.
Story topics: Niagara University