After winning just six conference games last year, the Raiders began this season unranked. Few outside of Hamilton expected much from the young roster, two-thirds of which are freshmen and sophomores. But thanks to the biggest turnaround in Don Vaughan's 21 years as the head coach at Colgate, the Raiders are headed to their first NCAA Tournament since 2005.
Their 7-10-2 start to the season seemed about right to most, but everything changed in January.
Colgate started the new year on a seven game undefeated streak that included wins over then No. 2-ranked Ferris State, No. 18 Vermont, No. 11 Clarkson and a shootout victory over No. 1 Minnesota.
By the end of the month, Colgate cracked the college hockey rankings for the first time this season at Number 17. And after the win over No. 5 Quinnipiac in the ECAC Hockey Semifinals and their first trip to the ECAC championship game in 24 years, the Raiders earned their highest ranking of the year in the USCHO poll at No. 12.
The turnaround has earned Vaughan ECAC Hockey Coach of the Year accolades for the second time.
"Our sophomore class has matured a lot from where they were last year," said Vaughan. "They learned a lot last year as freshmen about how hard you have to work and I think our focus is a lot better because of that. That's really a learning process."
Raiders vets attribute their success to tight team bonds.
"I think we've got a lot more character in the locker room," said captain Spiro Goulakos. "Not to take anything away from the group we had last year, but we we've just been gelling as a group. The work ethic has been a huge difference.The freshmen come in and work extremely hard and that pushes us older guys to try and out-compete."
"Everyone gets along really well and we've got a lot of camaraderie in the room," said sophomore right wing Tyson Spink. "I think we're playing with a lot of confidence this year and that's key to our success. These guys are just a lot of fun to play with."
Not only are the Raiders having fun, they're one of the most interesting teams to watch. Identical twins Tyson and center Tyler Spink lead the Colgate offense in scoring.
"They're very hard to tell apart," laughed Vaughan. "To me it's all about how they engage on the ice. They find each other very well in traffic. They've played together since they were very young but I think it's more than that. It's almost like they have a sixth sense at times although, they won't admit to that. They find each other so well in traffic though. It's pretty special."
And freshman netminder Charlie Finn was recently named All ECAC Hockey Third Team goalie and top goalie for the all-rookie squad.
"Charlie Finn has had a lot to do with our success," said Vaughan. "Our goaltending situation has just been phenomenal for us in the second half [of the season]."
With an at-large bid, the Raiders departed for their fifth-ever NCAA tournament this afternoon. This Friday in Cincinnati, Colgate will take on a familiar foe in Ferris State. In their three meetings with the Bulldogs this season, Colgate holds a 2-1 edge. The Raiders have pitched shutouts in each of their wins over Ferris State.
"There's always uncertainty but with a young team that's never been there you just never know how things are going to play out," said Vaughan. "So I think it's a little bit of an advantage having a team you've played three times, coming in a fourth time. We know what they're about and we know how they play. That's just one less thing that we have to worry about coming into the week."
Puck drop is slated for 4:30 p.m. Friday on ESPN3. The winner will advance to face the winner of Wisconsin-North Dakota on Saturday at 6;30 p.m. That game will air on ESPNU.