MARSHALL - A certain level of anxiety is to be expected when confronting a moment you have spent most of your life dreaming about. So when members of the Marshall boys' hockey team said they were nervous throughout their Section 3A final with Hutchinson on Feb. 27, it's completely understandable.
"I think it was probably the biggest game of all of our lives, so we were all pretty nervous," senior defenseman Adam McVey said.
At stake for the Tigers against Hutchinson was a spot in the Minnesota boys' high school hockey state tournament. A 3-2 victory, thanks to Alex Buysse's overtime game-winner, earned a first-ever berth in "The Tourney" for the Tigers, while also giving their nerves a week-long extension.
The Marshall boys’ hockey team huddles at the end of practice Monday at Lockwood Motors Ice Arena.
"I don't think the nerves ever went away," Marshall head coach Dave Coudert said. "Even on the way home it was 'Oh my god, now we're going to state.' We had a moment after the goal where it was just pure jubilation, then the coaches got right back to work.
"I don't think I've slept the past two weeks now. It's starting to catch up to me but it's a sacrifice you have to make if you want to make it," Coudert, who is enjoying unprecedented success with the Marshall program in his first year behind the bench, added. "These kids have had to sacrifice a lot more than me losing sleep. They did all the work so it's all on them."
The sleeplessness has taken its toll on the players too, especially senior captain Beau Mikel.
"I haven't been really concentrating during school, or getting much sleep lately," Mikel said. "(Monday) went by pretty slow."
Marshall is the only school making its debut at the Xcel Energy Center, as the seven other teams in the Class A field have a combined 44 appearances and nine championships (including the past seven titles).
The Tigers may not be the most experienced team in the field (Breck and Hermantown both are making their 10th appearance in St. Paul), the highest scoring team (186 goals for Hermantown) or the best defensive team (St. Thomas Academy has surrendered just 32 goals in 28 games). What Marshall does lead the field in, however, is proving its doubters wrong.
The 2012-13 season was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Tigers. Having graduated a stable of reliable contributors and with a first-year head coach, many people around the state had written Marshall off when most of the team was still wearing football pads.
The situation looked increasingly dire late in the season when the Tigers, already with Buysse inactive due to injury, lost assistant captain Leo Zerr for the remainder of the year with an ankle injury and junior defenseman Brent Haukom to a broken collarbone.
For the coaches, patience and confidence in some of the younger players (along with Buysse's return) helped right the ship just in time for the playoffs.
"As coaches we came together and said we've got guys we can plug in," Coudert said. "I think basically a third or a quarter of our junior varsity team started dressing for varsity. We were confident that we had young guys that could help out and we still had the core guys to be leaders.
"Leo was still a leader in the locker room, Haukom was still a leader and Alex was still a leader and kept pushing them," he added. "The injuries brought us together. I think a team that comes together as a family is a tough team to play against. We all care for each other and want to play for each other, no matter what."
Meanwhile, the healthy players refused to make excuses.
"When everybody was getting hurt I was just like 'you've got to play with what you've got," McVey said.
The team's leading scorer, Corey Clark, found inspiration in the play of his younger teammates and helped lead the scoring charge for the Tigers on their run.
"Guys filled in, the young guys filled in and played well," said Clark, who enters the state tournament with 36 points (25 goals and 11 assists).
As a reward for their tenacity, the Tigers (14-10-1 overall) will make their state tournament debut against the Breck Mustangs of Golden Valley.
Breck, the No. 2 seed in the tournament with a 24-3-1 record, has won four titles in its history and was the runner-up to top-seeded St. Thomas Academy a year ago.
"It's going to be a test," Coudert said. "The only worse draw would have been St. Thomas Academy, so we just want to see hard work, heart and no giving up. Just do Marshall proud, that's what we want. All the pressure is on Breck, so we just want to go in there and make sure we can play with them for as long as possible."
The Tigers are also hoping that their inaugural appearance can serve as a galvanizing moment for a hockey program in a basketball town.
"I think it was the greatest thing when we were playing Hutch and saw half of our youth association there, if not more," Coudert said. "I think it proves and shows in their eyes that a Marshall team can go to state. We've just got to work hard and it trickles down to where now we do have a goal as an association. We know we can get there, it's just we need the bantams and pee-wees to work to get there."
Marshall and Breck open up the 2013 Minnesota state boys' hockey tournament at 11 a.m. on Wednesday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.