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Behind the COVID curtain: Untold stories from Bemidji State’s run to the NCAA Tournament

Above all, the Beavers were there to play hockey, something they did with quite a bit of success. To get there, however, required sacrifice, determination, and a keen focus on keeping themselves healthy.

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Bemidji State celebrates at the final horn following a 6-3 victory over Wisconsin in the NCAA East Regional semifinals at Bridgeport, Conn., on Friday, March 26, 2021. (Greg Vasil / Special to the Pioneer)
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Ethan Somoza had never been on a charter flight before. But for the Bemidji State men’s hockey team’s trip to the NCAA East Regional in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, they received an upgrade.

“We got our own plane. It wasn't necessarily a jet, but it was a private plane we got to go straight from Bemidji into (the tournament),” the fifth-year forward and second-year captain said.

The Beavers typically wouldn’t fly directly out of Bemidji when facing teams away from the Sanford Center, but for this occasion, they made an exception.

RELATED: Read all the stories in the Pioneer's BSU Hockey special section

What they walked into when they arrived in Bridgeport, Conn., was less exciting. Tightly regimented COVID-19 protocols governed their every move, including daily testing and limits on where players and coaches could go within the team hotel.

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But above all, they were there to play hockey, something they did with quite a bit of success. To get there, however, required sacrifice, determination, and a keen focus on keeping themselves healthy.

The trail of testing

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Bemidji State's Alex Ierullo (14) gains possession of the puck during a February 2021 game against Minnesota State at the Sanford Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

“From the middle of November to the end of the season, probably 75 times we tested,” head coach Tom Serratore said. “And you get to the NCAA Tournament, there's a soft quarantine. But then you're testing every day, and (if) you have one positive test, you're done. And that was nerve-racking, nerve-racking every day. And then there's teams that even had false positives, so then you have to take another test. And it was nerve-racking going in there to test because you just didn't know how things were going to play out.”

Teams like Michigan and Notre Dame received positive results and were immediately eliminated from the tournament. The stress of the day only abated after the daily round of testing had returned no positives.

“It was tough on you psychologically too,” Serratore said. “And the players, they were nervous. I mean, you could tell when we were going to the rink to test. It was quiet on the bus, because you just don't know. You had minimal, if any, interaction with anybody else, but it doesn't matter. You don't think that way.

“Like I said, it was a drama-filled event. And when you see Michigan, and Notre Dame had their situation as well, it gets to the point where honestly, we tested at I think it was 11 in the morning. Once we were done testing, it was just like, 'OK, now we have another day where we're good.' It was crazy when you think about all these things, but that's the world we lived in last year.”

On the ice, down in history

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Bemidji State junior Owen Sillinger (12) controls the puck near the Michigan Tech net in the second period of Friday’s game at the Sanford Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

The actual contests came second to the difficulty of preparing for them.

“To me, the games were easy,” Serratore said. “It was really all the outside distractions, and there was a lot of distractions.”

Not all the distractions were negative, though. The opportunity to play games on national television presented an opportunity for a national audience to learn about BSU hockey.

“It was cool walking into the rink and seeing (ESPN commentators) Barry Melrose and John Buccigross walking around talking to everybody, ESPN trucks are there,” junior goaltender Michael Carr said. “Those are some of the things that you really try to pay attention to and then really just soak up as you're going through it so 10, 20 years down the line, you can look back and say, 'I remember this. That was awesome.' That's one of those things that you really do try and cherish.”

Even more than the chance to face No. 1 seed Wisconsin on ESPN, the Beavers cherished the opportunity to have a regional after a likely NCAA Tournament run in 2020 was canceled due to the pandemic. Bemidji State took advantage of every opportunity because there was no way to know when the program would have another.

“We were fortunate enough to play the games,” Serratore said. “We looked at it that way, that we just felt we were very lucky to play. And I thought that the level of hockey was outstanding last year, even though there were no fans in the stands.”

BSU expected to win when it faced Wisconsin -- with Serratore even describing the game as “business as usual” -- but the locker room scene was special after the 6-3 win over the Badgers. At the same time, the players kept in mind what they would face moving forward against Massachusetts.

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“We were excited,” forward Owen Sillinger said. “I mean, to back up Tom 100%, we knew what we had to do in order to win that game. After the game when we won, you're right, there was definitely a feel-good moment where we were like, 'All right, we're moving on here, what's the next task?’ And we definitely celebrated that night with each other.”

BSU couldn’t finish off the regional with a win over UMass, the eventual national champions. But the chemistry and camaraderie they built after last year’s success, in the face of unprecedented challenges, has them confident in what they can achieve in 2021-22.

“We got to the regional tournament last year, but it feels like there's still a little bit of unfinished business,” Somoza said. “We got to the regional tournament championship game and we lost it to UMass. We want to win that and go to the Frozen Four. I want to help lead the team and get there again this year, and hopefully (this year) we can get to the Frozen Four.”

The Beavers will get to play with a full complement of fans this year, starting at 7:07 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 8, against Minnesota Duluth at the Sanford Center. And they can’t wait.

“Oh man, we are so excited for that,” Somoza said. “I really hope that the Sanford can be sold out, and I hope all the fans are excited to be back in the rink. And we're excited to hit the ice with all the fans there. So it's going to be a great home opener, and we hope we can see a lot of fans out there.”

Christian Babcock is a sports reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer. He trekked to Bemidji from his hometown of Campbell, Calif., after graduating from the Cronkite School at Arizona State University in 2021. Follow him on Twitter at @CB_Journalist for updates on the Lumberjacks and Beavers or to suggest your favorite local restaurant.
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