A Seat in the Bleachers: Electric City feels a charge, as Upset City beckons Dutchmen
SCHENECTADY Billy McDonald rolled the stroller carrying his son Ryan up to the back of the crowd gathered in front of the Schenectady Chamber of Commerce on Monday.
It was a rally for the Union hockey team, and at one point, Dutchmen head coach Rick Bennett spotted little Ryan, almost 2, in his stroller.
“There’s a future Dutchman back there,” he said.
Twenty years ago, the Dutchmen won all of three games.
Twenty years from now, perhaps Ryan McDonald will have a garnet-and-white jersey of his own, and if so, he’ll be able to say that he’s carrying the legacy of one of the best teams this city has seen.
Union is one of four teams still alive in the NCAA Division I tournament, and the feeling of pride bursting at the seams in Schenectady is reminiscent of Schenectady High’s run to the New York state boys’ basketball championship in 1998.
There’s evidence of Dutchmen fever all over the place, from the puck cakes and hockey stick cookies at Aperitivo on State Street, to the posters in the windows, the Union jersey hanging on the wall since Union grad Matt Baumgartner opened Bombers Burritos a few years ago, and the Dutchmen Ale that the McDonalds created at the Van Dyck’s Mad Jack Brewery.
I sampled this fine beverage on Monday, and the few of us who were there early in the evening were compelled to examine comparisons of Union’s incredible run to the Frozen Four to, for instance, the Little League World Series championship won in 1954 by Destiny’s Darlings from Schenectady, the team that begat Billy Connors, Jimmy Barbieri and so many other stars of the city.
That’s how big this is, a sports event that can unify a relatively small city with many moving parts.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around the notion that Union, for years relegated to steerage on the ECAC ship, is in position to prove itself to be the best college hockey team in the country.
Looking for an upset?
The Dutchmen have come to the right place.
Union will play Ferris State from Grand Rapids, Mich., in one semifinal at 4:30 this afternoon at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
It’s a town that was dubbed “Upset City” by the local newspaper in 2008, when two No. 13 seeds, including Siena, and two No. 12s won in the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
The other semifinal involves traditional powerhouses Boston College and Minnesota, and some of the snarkmeisters out there have dismissively called Union-Ferris State the JV game.
Ferris State, despite lacking much in name recognition, compared to the big programs, will be a tough opponent for the Dutchmen.
Because of that, it’s probably easy for some Union fans and bandwagon jumpers to look past the Bulldogs (I had to look it up), but they will not be pushovers, as you’d expect in the national semifinals.
It’s not difficult to get a sense from the Dutchmen that they lack some of the qualities you could expect from a small-school team that had only been to the NCAA Division I tournament once — last year — and had never won a game until this year.
They beat Michigan State and UMass Lowell for the East Region championship two weekends ago, and Bennett went out of his way a few times in the post-game interviews to point out that the Dutchmen had classes starting the following Monday.
The Dutchmen have never been here before, but they haven’t acted as if such was the case.
“The poise and panic threshhold we have, you can’t really impact that through words or speeches, it’s a natural thing, an identity, a personality that the team has,” junior forward Jeremy Welsh said. “We’re not too high on ourselves right now.”
Here’s one observer’s prediction: Union beats Ferris State in a close, grinding, heart-wrenching game, let’s say in overtime, given Gazette Union beat writer Ken Schott’s proclivity for drawing that type of assignment.
Co-opting the Dutchmen’s own skill for staying rooted in the moment, I won’t make any predictions beyond that, except to say that, if Union makes it to the Saturday championship game, one of these big-time programs will see an opponent who isn’t just happy to be there.
Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 395-3146 or email@example.com. His blog, “A Seat in Cyberspace,” can be found at http://www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/macadam/.