Bemidji State finally takes big stage

Talk to anyone associated with Bemidji State hockey and you quickly hear the passion in their voice: for their program, for their school and for their region.

They'll tell you Beaver hockey is an all-consuming endeavor that might be hard to understand from the outside looking in. But like some things that are hard to define, you know when you're a part of it.

"It brings a sense of pride when you're having success and everybody has ownership in the program, and that's the beauty of being at a small school," folksy coach Tom Serratore said of the university in Bemidji, Minn. "We're living in the middle of hockey country. It's a great place for college hockey, and a great place for hockey in general. You go to Bemidji and it reeks hockey."

That the pungently proud Bemidji hockey program still finds itself playing hockey on the last weekend of the college season would have to be considered the biggest surprise of a 2009 NCAA tournament that has been full of shocking results.

So when the puck drops for the Frozen Four on Thursday afternoon at the Verizon Center in our nation's capital, No. 4 seed Bemidji State (20-15-1) will be facing off against No. 4 Miami (Ohio) (22-12-5) in the first national semifinal (ESPN2HD, 5 p.m. ET). The second semifinal (ESPN2HD, 8:30 p.m. ET) has No. 3 Vermont (20-11-5) against Hockey East rival No. 1 Boston University (33-6-4).

The Beavers, who will be making their first Frozen Four appearance, come in representing College Hockey America, a league that will cease to exist after next season. So if Bemidji can't find a new conference to call home for the 2010-11 campaign, the program will likely cease to exist, as well.

All of which would be particularly bad timing considering the school just broke ground last Friday on the Bemidji Regional Events Center, a $40-plus million on-campus facility that is supposed to be the new home for Beaver hockey beginning in the fall of 2010.

Bemidji has applied for membership in the WCHA, a conference that includes four fellow Minnesota schools (Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota State and St. Cloud State) and nearby North Dakota. The biggest barrier to entrance into the WCHA would appear to be that Bemidji is the only school that officially applied for membership (three others inquired) and admittance would create a difficult-to-manage 11-team league.

The 10 current members will put Bemidji's application to a vote later this month at the annual league meetings in Naples, Fla. Eight out of 10 schools would have to vote yes for Bemidji to be admitted.

New arena. (Hopefully) new league. New Frozen Four qualifier.

All things considered, it's heady stuff for a small school that pretty much lives an insulated existence in the northwest corner of Minnesota.

Serratore, a former Bemidji hockey player, says his players can't concern themselves with anything but their performance on the ice.

"Our only motivation is to play the best hockey we possibly can this weekend, and if that means having some success by winning, great," Serratore said. "If not, we just want to make sure that we play extremely hard, we play tenacious, we play determined and we play an entertaining style of hockey that the people of the United States are going to sit there and look at when it's all said and done and say, 'That's a fun hockey team to watch.'"

You go to Bemidji and it reeks hockey.

--Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore

This marks Bemidji's third trip to the NCAA Division I tournament, but it's the first year the Beavers won a game. Their history, however, is loaded with success. Try 13 national championships (7 NAIA, 5 Division II and 1 Division III) and nearly 950 games won.

All that history has created a culture in Bemidji that locals say is hard to escape. It has also created an internal expectation that the Beavers can compete with anyone on any stage.

"You have to believe, and we believe in ourselves," Serratore said. "Unless you've ever worn a Beaver jersey or been in a Beaver locker room it's hard to understand and fathom what we're talking about, but this program has won so many games.

"We've won 942 games. We've won close to 70 percent of our games. We've won 13 national championships; we've won over 20 conference championships. So we talk about championships. We talk about how special it is to play for this program, about how many times we won games where people never thought we could win games."

The Midwest Regional two weekends ago in Grand Rapids, Mich., would be a prime example. Bemidji went in with the perception that it was little more than a speed bump for No. 1 seed Notre Dame on the Fighting Irish's way to a repeat trip to the Frozen Four.

But the Beavers smacked down the Irish in convincing fashion with a 5-1 win before getting by Cornell 4-1 in the regional title game.

"It's been pretty surreal," senior Tyler Scofield said. "We feel like rock stars. Everywhere you go, you have people congratulating you. We know we've got quite an opportunity in front of us. It's been exciting, but our guys know there's still a big step ahead of us, and we want to make that step."

Left wing Scofield (22 goals, 16 assists, 38 points), who was named Most Outstanding Player of the Midwest Regional, makes up one-third of Bemidji's potent top line, which also includes center Matt Read (14-25--39)and right wing Matt Francis (13-12--25).

Serratore knows his best players have to play their best game for this feel-good story to live on past Thursday. He also knows it's too late to make any changes to the Beavers' on-ice plan.

"The hay is in the barn right now; the hay is in the barn," Serratore said. "The bottom line is when we play relentless, with the pursuit that we did against Notre Dame and at times against Cornell -- our guys know it and can sense it -- we're very successful.

"If our timing is off and we're late getting to pucks and we don't have that type of relentless pursuit, then we're a team that's not that hard to play against. If we want to be hard to play against, then we have to play our style of hockey, and our guys know what it is."

The good news for Bemidji is that the other three teams in Washington, D.C., this weekend are equally inexperienced when it comes to this level of national success. Miami has been a top-flight program over the past 10 years, but this is the RedHawks' first trip to the Frozen Four; Vermont hasn't been here since the Martin St. Louis days of 1996; and Boston University, one of the true brand names in college hockey, hasn't been to the national semis since 1997, before the NCAA actually started calling this event the Frozen Four.

"It's great for hockey," Serratore said. "It's boring to have the same teams all the time. There's something special with a team like Bemidji State advancing on. There's a bit of a buzz; there's excitement.

"This is good for the game, because everybody out there who plays college hockey realizes it can be them someday."

Even though it's a new experience for all four schools this weekend, all eyes and curiosity will clearly be focused on Bemidji State.

"It's going to be great to get national recognition out there," Serratore said. "It's good exposure and gives our university a little notoriety, and any time you have that, I don't think you can put a price tag on that. It's great visibility, and a special time for us."

Some might even say it's so good it reeks.

David Albright covers college sports for ESPN.com and can be reached at espncaa@gmail.com