By Shane Frederick
The Free Press
It must have been a little more than halfway through the college hockey season, and it was clear that Minnesota State had turned things around after a couple of rough years and a coaching change.
Following a Mavericks' home win, Eriah Hayes' mom, Joni, stopped me for a second. She told me how important this senior season was to her son and how he wanted nothing more than to lead MSU to the national tournament and be one of the last 16 teams standing after the conference tournaments.
Hayes got his chance on Saturday at Toledo, Ohio.
While the Mavericks' 4-0 loss to Miami wasnÕt the result Hayes or the rest of the team wanted, it was clear that MSU hockey was in a better place.
"I think it's something us seniors will have for the rest of our lives," Hayes said after the season ended Saturday night. "We can take pride in being a Maverick and take pride in going to Minnesota State and playing there as well."
There's an old adage that campers follow: Leave the site in better shape than you found it.
Hayes and his fellow co-captain Tyler Elbrecht did that with the MSU program.
A year ago, when Troy Jutting was fired and the search to find a Mike Hastings had begun, the players weren't sure what the next year would bring.
Of course they set goals to get home ice for the WCHA tournament, advance to the Final Five and get that elusive national-tournament bid. But how realistic were those last April, last July or last October?
"Coming into the year, if you asked us if we would have been here, we probably would have had some doubts in our mind, just because of where we finished last year and the year before that," Elbrecht said in Saturday's postgame press conference. "So it's been a fun year."
There's a lot of promise for the future of Minnesota State hockey.
MSU will return Matt Leitner, Jean-Paul LaFontaine, Zach Palmquist and, of course, rookie goalie Stephon Williams.
The other freshmen -- Teddy Blueger, Dylan Margonari, Brett Knowles, Bryce Gervais and Jon Jutzi among them -- made great strides, and it will be interesting to see Hastings' first recruiting class in the fall.
"They're going to be to be really good the next few years," Hayes said.
The Mavericks will enter the 2013-14 season as the favorites to win the new WCHA. It remains to be seen if that team will have the kind of leadership that Hayes and Elbrecht provided. Nary a week went by this season that Hastings didn't sing the praises of his seniors.
Getting to the national tournament is hard. Taking what had been an 11th place team for two seasons there is even harder.
Credit Hastings for changing the Mavericks' culture. But credit Hayes and Elbrecht for buying in during their final season and deciding to leave behind a legacy.
"I think the boys in the locker room and the recruits coming in will take a little more pride in pulling that jersey over their heads," Hayes said.
Shane Frederick is a Free Press staff writer. Read his blog at mankatofreepresshockey.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter @puckato.