It was Dean Blais’ first full UNO recruiting class, a group expected to make an immediate impact in the Mavericks’ first season in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and to eventually help compete for a national championship.
The group had early success, hit a collective mid-career lull and suffered from attrition.
This weekend, the six remaining members of that 2010-11 recruiting class will play their final regular-season home games in Maverick sweaters. And there’s still time to write a stirring final chapter to their saga.
“First-class guys, all good students,” Blais said. “I’m real happy that they’ve taken over the team and want, and can still have, a successful senior season … home ice (for the playoffs), getting to the (Frozen Faceoff) at the Target Center and making the NCAA tournament.”
Forwards Ryan Walters, Brock Montpetit and Johnnie Searfoss, as well as defenseman Michael Young, could skate in CenturyLink Center games for the final time this weekend (pending the league playoffs) against Colorado College on Friday night at 7:37 and Saturday night at 7:07. Forward Alex Simonson will likely join them in the lineup. Forward Zahn Raubenheimer suffered a broken foot last weekend, ending his Mav career.
“It’s come fast,” said Young, UNO’s captain. “It’ll be bittersweet. It’s been a ride.”
Blais, hired in the spring of 2009, didn’t have much time to cobble together a recruiting class for 2009-10. But given time to recruit for the following year, he signed an exciting freshman class that got 14 goals from Matt White, 11 each from Walters and Montpetit, nine from Searfoss and four from Raubenheimer. The Mavs were a surprising third in their first season in the WCHA and lost a controversial overtime game to Michigan in the NCAA tournament.
Besides White, others from that class who had strong careers at UNO included defensemen Andrej Sustr, Bryce Aneloski and Tony Turgeon. Aneloski came in as a sophomore, while the others left early for professional hockey. The final member of the class was goalie Mike Taffe, who later returned to junior hockey and finished his career at Utica College.
“I knew when we recruited them that they were pretty special,” Blais said.
Blais recruited all of them except Young, who had committed to UNO a year earlier under Mike Kemp.
“Getting to know Blais was quick and easy,” Young said. “We were here most of the summer — and I actually came in later than the other guys did. We bonded and came together real fast.”
Walters first committed to Minnesota, but broke it off when the Gophers wanted him to return to juniors. Montpetit had broken off his commitment to Wisconsin about a year before Blais first approached him. Searfoss, at one time committed to Maine, had played for Blais with the USHL’s Fargo Force.
“I looked up and down the roster and there were a bunch of great hockey players,” said Searfoss, now an assistant captain. “It was exciting.”
Walters, who last year had career bests of 22 goals and 30 assists, ranks fourth in school history with 128 points — he’s tied for seventh with 49 goals and tied for fifth with 79 assists — and holds a school-record rating of plus-38. This season, he has six goals but has a team-high 22 assists.
Montpetit, fourth on the team this year with 25 points, has matched his freshman total with 11 goals — giving him 29 for his career to go with 48 assists.
Searfoss, who had a career-high 11 goals last season, has four goals and eight assists this year for career totals of 27 goals and 30 assists.
Raubenheimer finished with 20 goals and 24 assists, including six and five this year. His career best was nine goals last year.
Young hasn’t scored a goal this year, but he has a career-best 16 assists. For his career, he has 10 goals and 52 assists (he’s tied for 15th in school history in assists).
Simonson has appeared in 59 career games, including two this year, and has two assists.
The impact of the class has had its ups and downs. Junior Josh Archibald has become one of the country’s top goal-scorers (26) and fellow junior Dominic Zombo (14 goals, 13 assists) centers that line which usually includes either Walters or high-impact freshman Jake Guentzel (4 goals, 21 assists).
“Things happen when you’re recruiting underneath,” Blais said, referring to subsequent recruiting classes. “You get other players who have maybe taken the power-play time, or maybe they’re a little more talented.”
But the promise that followed this class is still attainable. The Mavs are third in their first season in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference — similar to their low expectations and high finish in that first WCHA season. They have an outside shot at the league title and have a better chance at securing home ice for the first round of the playoffs. UNO likely has to win the NCHC playoffs to reach the NCAA tournament.
Montpetit remembers the excitement of his class coming together.
“You don’t talk with the other guys about it,” he said, “but you have respect for them. And when you know they’re going, you just want to be part of a class like that.
“When I came on my visit, Coach Blais said he was going to bring in the best recruits he could, and that we had a class that could possibly win a national championship. And now that we’re seniors, we still have that chance.”