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The UMD Bulldogs have had colossal success in their athletic world, and they had done so well that they were playing at home in an NCAA Division II regional football game, and they were at Nebraska-Kearney for the D-II Super Regional in volleyball, while their hockey team was ranked No. 1 in the nation in D-I and took an 8-game winning streak to Denver.The women’s hockey team, not yet back to top-shelf acclaim, was at Ohio State in a series with major WCHA ramifications.
When the weekend was over, it was almost a complete melt-down for the Bulldogs. In volleyball, UMD won its quarterfinal match, but then uncharacteristically lost solid leads in two sets to fall in three sets to Washburn in the semifinals. In women’s hockey, UMD lost 3-1, and 4-1, virtually conceding third place to the Buckeyes.
The men’s hockey team was stunned 2-0 at Denver, with an empty-net goal making it look worse than it was. Devin Cooley made 38 saves for the shutout, as UMD outshot the Pioneers 38-14. On Saturday, Denver led 3-0 after two periods, and Cooley appeared headed for his second shutout of the Bulldogs.
At that point, back at home in frigid Duluth, we at least had the undefeated Bulldogs, taking on Texas A&M-Commerce. We might have wondered if “Commerce” meant that the college specialized in business, but no. It is located in a small town named Commerce, located about 65 miles to the east of Dallas.
The Lions won the NCAA Division II championship a year ago, but any hope their background in sunny Texas might help the Bulldogs, in the sub-20-degree afternoon with a windchill that had to be sub-10, vanished shortly after the opening kickoff. The Lions forced a fumble, pounced on it, and moved in to score. Only a great UMD defensive stand prevented a second touchdown, and UMD trailed 10-0 after one quarter. It turned out to be a game of big - enormous, actually - plays, and the Bulldogs had their share of them in the second quarter.
Gus Wedig, a senior linebacker having possibly the game of his life, intercepted a Kane Wilson pass and galloped 80 yards for a touchdown to putt UMD up to a 10-7 deficit. Four minutes later, Nate Pearson, a sophomore linebacker, stepped in front of another receiver, intercepted Wilson’s pass, and ran 29 yards in to boost UMD to a 14-10 lead.
“We were playing really well,” said A&M coach Colby Carthel, “and we were behind 14-10.”
To put it in perspective, the Bulldogs rushed for 23 yards in the first half, and Mike Rybarczyk had passed for 30 more. That’s 53 yards. Wedig’s runback covered 80 yards! He went on to make 12 tackles, 6 of them solo, for a memorable afternoon.
But when UMD couldn’t make anything of a final chance before halftime, and Cameron Hausman punted, Dominique Ramsey caught the punt at his own 21 yard line. “He got a good hold of it, and it hung in the air,” said Ramsey. “When I caught it and looked up, I saw a little space.”
Ramsey spurted through that little space, then spent what seemed like a half minute to zig-zag around and through virtually the entire UMD punt coverage unit. Somebody said nine UMD players got a hand on him, but he raced 79 yards for a touchdown, with only 5 seconds left in the first half.
“For everybody that got a hand on me, I had someone blocking them,” said Ramsey, who can now add that 79-yard punt return to a season that includes a 99-yard interception return against Angelo State, an 84-yard interception return against West Texas A&M, a 72-yard punt return against Colorado State-Pueblo, and a 71-yard punt return againsdt Lock Haven.
“We were a little deflated when they got that second interception return for a touchdown,” said Carthel, “on that punt just before halftime, we went for the block and didn’t get it. But when you’ve got No. 20 back there, and he gets some space, it’s really hard to stop him.”
Trailing 17-14 at halftime wasn’t the end of the world for UMD, but on the opening drive of the second half, Wilson hit Marquis Wimberly with a pass and he ran in to score on a 40-yard touchdown play and it was 24-14.
The Bulldogs made a spirited bid to get back into the game, as coach Curt Wiese used both Rybarczyk and Ben Everhart at quarerback. Senior Nate Ricci got free for just an instant here and there and caught three passes for 37 yards in heavy traffic. Dain Hudson caught five for 31 yards, and Obi Ibeneme caught three for 48 yards, but the Bulldogs couldn’t find the end zone again, with only Dan Branger’s 32-yard field goal to show for the second half. The Lions, meanwhile, scored on a blocked punt and a 43-yard field goal to close out the 33-17 victory.
Texas A&M-Commerce managed only 63 yards rushing, while UMD’s total was 42, and the Lions had a 213-146 edge in passing yards.
“We had a tremendous group of seniors,” said Wiese. “They gave us great leadership, and we lose nine starters who were seniors. This one hurts, but we’ll rebound from this.”
So all of that meant UMD was 0-forever for the weekend, with only that third period, trailing 3-0 out in Denver standing in the way of a total wipeout.
But at 6:56 of the third, Nick Swaney scored UMD’s first goal of the weekend. Two and a half minutes later, Billy Exell scored to cut the deficit to 3-2. With goaltender Hunter Shepard pulled for a sixth attacker, the Bulldogs charged again. As the final seconds elapsed, the puck came out to sophomore defenseman Scott Perunovich, who fired a screened shot that found the net with the tying goal and the clock showing 1.8 seconds remaining.
Overtime. Freshman Cole Koepke from Hermantown, who had played so well at left wing on the Justin Richards line, got the puck as he crossed the blue line and he skated in hard at the net on the left side of a 2-on-2
rush with Richards. Koepke saw goalie Devin Cooley drop to his knees, covering the short-side left post all the way up to the top 4 inches.
Koepke fired, and sent a bull’s-eye into that upper left extremity at 0:52 of sudden-death overtime, and the Builldogs escaped with a 4-3 victory and a split.
Score one for UMD, and for its football, volleyball, women’s hockey team, and a game and two-thirds for the men’s hockey team.