RIT hockey: 'Who are these guys?'

The electronic scroll on the front of the team's charter bus painted the perfect picture -- "RIT Hockey. Who are these guys?"

"I put it in real quick," driver Jim McKay said. "I thought it was very appropriate."

Was it ever.

"It's funny. We were joking we were Rhode Island Tech," star defenseman Dan Ringwald said. "Hopefully, people now know we're the Rochester Institute of Technology."

They should.

The Tigers are in the Frozen Four for the first time -- just five years after moving to Division I. It wasn't an easy path: RIT stunned perennial powers Denver and New Hampshire last week in the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament.

RIT beat second-ranked Denver 2-1 behind the stalwart goaltending of senior Jared DeMichiel, then dismantled Hockey East regular-season champ UNH 6-2 in a masterful exhibit of team play spurred by goals from Tyler Brenner, Brent Alexin and Stevan Matic in a 94-second span to win the East Regional in Albany, N.Y.

DeMichiel, one of the keys to the Tigers' success, was selected the most outstanding player of the regional after stopping 63 of 66 shots. He has a 1.98 goals-against average, .924 save percentage, and leads the nation in wins with 27.

"Our goal this year was to get to the NCAAs. That was upfront, the very first meeting we ever had," coach Wayne Wilson said. "We want to do a little bit better than the teams before us have done. Hopefully, we can set a bar that no other team can beat."

When that bus arrived back at campus in the wee hours the morning after RIT's big win, a police escort guided the way to an impromptu welcome reception organized after the final horn in Albany. The throng included RIT president Bill Destler and pretty much left the players speechless -- a thrill rivaling the deafening cheers they receive at every home game in 2,100-seat Frank Ritter Arena, one of the loudest rinks in college hockey.

"None of us really expected what was there. It was really humbling," said sophomore forward Cameron Burt, who leads the Tigers in scoring with 16 goals and 47 points. "A few of us thought maybe 40 or 50 people, but when we got off the bus and there were hundreds of people waiting outside for us cheering, it was just a surreal experience -- something I'll never forget."

Sort of like this breakout season for the Tigers (28-11-1), who have won 12 straight games heading into Thursday's semifinal against traditional power Wisconsin (27-10-4) at Ford Field in Burt's hometown of Detroit.

When Wilson was hired 11 years ago, this was not what he envisioned.

"I just wanted to be a head coach," said Wilson, an assistant for a decade at his alma mater, Bowling Green. "I had been an assistant for a long time and just wanted to move on. The program had a great reputation. I put my name in the ring and ended up getting the job."

Things changed in a heartbeat.

"All of a sudden I get a call around Christmastime. 'Hey, we're going to take the program to Division I.' I wasn't prepared for that," Wilson said. "I took the job based on that it was going to be Division III and that's what I'd be coaching for the rest of my career.

"OK. What's the change of thought? That went to just excited to be back in Division I to, 'Oh my God! What are we getting ourselves into?"

As it's turned out, something pretty good. A longtime power in college hockey's lower echelons -- RIT hockey began in 1962 and the team won national championships in Division II and Division III in the 1980s -- the Tigers have excelled in the fledgling Atlantic Hockey Association since going 6-22-2 in 2005-06, their first season in Division I.

"It's a pretty big jump, but I'd been planning it for 30 years," athletic director Lou Spiotti Jr. said. "It's just amazing. It probably didn't shock our players because they believed they could do it, but it shocked a lot of other people."

The Tigers began the season with five straight setbacks, losing every time they ventured out of conference. That they compete in the Atlantic Hockey Association, whose members also include Sacred Heart, Air Force, Army, Holy Cross, Bentley, Connecticut, Canisius and American International, only added to the perception that their newfound success was a fluke. After all, RIT is the first AHA school to reach the Frozen Four -- Wisconsin is seeking its seventh national championship.

"It takes time to grow," AHA commissioner Robert DeGregorio Jr. said. "Our league is getting more and more competitive and we're getting stronger. We don't have the longevity that a BU [Boston University] or a UNH or Minnesota has. We don't have two or three teams that have had Division I hockey for 25 or 35 years or a storied history of All-Americans, Hobey Baker winners or national championships. We're seven years old, but we're getting there.

"What surprised everybody was RIT was their equal," DeGregorio said. "They didn't have any non-league wins, and that affects your power rating. But they've got two non-league wins now."

The first was not necessarily a surprise to the victim.

"The college hockey landscape has changed so dramatically. Every year you're seeing the nontraditional teams either pushing the traditional teams right to the wire or winning games," Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. "They have tremendous balance and depth. I didn't see a weak link. I didn't see a Hobey Baker skater, maybe their goaltender, but no weak link."

Wilson has built his team much like the perennial powers, reaching into Canada and the ranks of junior hockey for much of his talent. One of those is the 23-year-old Ringwald, who plays alongside freshman Chris Tanev to form one of the most efficient backline duos in the nation. Tanev is a plus-35 on the season and Ringwald a plus-23.

Ringwald readily admits that RIT, which does not offer athletic scholarships, did not top his list of college choices. He changed his mind after he realized he'd be able to play as a freshman.

"That was one of the big draws for me, as well as the fact that there's no doubt about the academics," said Ringwald, who's already working on his MBA.

When they take the ice against the Badgers on Thursday, the Tigers will have to contend with the likes of players like Blake Geoffrion. He's one of three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to the best player in the nation. He's also a grandson of former Montreal Canadiens Hall of Famer Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion, the man generally credited with inventing the slapshot.

Rest assured RIT won't be starstruck because this isn't the first wave the AHA has made. Holy Cross knocked off Minnesota, a No. 1 seed, in 2006 and last year Air Force beat Michigan, also a No. 1 seed, before losing to Vermont in double overtime on a shot that had to be replayed.

"We definitely would like to make some noise," said Burt, from Detroit's northwest side. "It's huge, monumental here for us, the school, the whole community. It would give the whole city something to cheer about."