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Bemidji State hockey uses different recruiting approach

BEMIDJI - Tom Serratore doesn't try to recruit the best players.

He knows Bemidji State can't compete with college hockey's giants to land a first-round NHL draft pick or a highly-touted player. So he doesn't try.

That has brought popular questions in the last week: How does Bemidji State compete with those teams on the ice? How do the Beavers play toe-to-toe with Western Collegiate Hockey Association powers year after year? And how are the Beavers in the Frozen Four while many of the traditional powers are sitting at home?

The answer: Serratore and Bemidji State have developed a recruiting game plan that has led to the Beavers' Division I success.

College hockey has a unique way for the mid-majors and smaller schools to try to compete with the big-timers.

It's not like other college sports, where all the athletes go straight from high school to college. In hockey, only the elite players do that.

Most play at least a year of juniors after graduating from high school. In some cases, they play two or three years of juniors.

Late bloomers

While UND, Minnesota, Wisconsin and other perennial powers scour North America for the most talented players, who will arrive on campus as 18- or 19-year olds, Bemidji State is looking for players a year or two older who might have blossomed late.

"We're going after guys who are 19 or 20 years old, who might have a few kicks to their game," said Serratore, in his eighth year coaching BSU. "We look for guys who can skate and guys who are going to compete their butts off. We want to play a puck pressure game and we want to try to be as difficult to play against as possible. We want guys who will get in people's faces. That's what we have to do, that's the style we have to play to be successful."

This game plan isn't simple. Many schools try to do it. Serratore and his staff are just better at it than almost anybody.

Serratore became known for his outstanding eye for talent while he was an assistant at St. Cloud State. He's the one who spotted some under-recruited players who turned out to be stars for the Huskies and later NHLers, like Mark Hartigan, Duvie Westcott and Tyler Arnason.

Serratore has had similar success recruiting at Bemidji State.

Offer he couldn't refuse

Take Tyler Scofield, the hero of the Midwest Regional and BSU's leading goal scorer.

Scofield played five years of junior hockey, bouncing around to four different teams. At the conclusion of his 20-year-old season, Scofield hadn't been recruited by any schools and he planned to hang up the skates.

But that summer, Bemidji State called and offered Scofield some leftover scholarship money. Scofield said he was having a hard time envisioning life without hockey, so he decided to accept the offer without visiting the school.

In August, he flew to Winnipeg, where he met assistant coach Bert Gilling for the first time. Gilling gave Scofield a crash course on BSU during the four-hour drive to campus.

"I didn't know a whole lot about it," Scofield said. "I signed like two weeks before the final signing deadline. I never made a trip there. My first time in Bemidji was when I got there to start school. But on that drive with Bert, he explained how things worked and I was starting to get pretty pumped."

The Beavers are surely pumped they got Scofield, too.

The Prince George, B.C., product has posted more than 20 points in each of his four years at Bemidji State, tallying a total of 110 heading into the Frozen Four. Only two Beavers have tallied more career points in the Division I era -- Andrew Murray, now of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and Roseau's Luke Erickson.

Scofield's senior season has been his best. He leads the team with 22 goals and has 13 points in the last five games. Scofield is the first Beaver to earn Most Outstanding Player honors at a regional.

It's a hefty resume for a guy that no other program recruited.

"I'm definitely glad they called me," Scofield says with a laugh.

More rare finds

There are others, too.

Grand Forks Central graduate Matt Carlson, who is redshirting this season, is another Beaver who nearly hung up the skates. He planned to quit hockey after high school, but former UND defenseman Jason Herter, who was coaching an AAA midget program in Kansas at the time, convinced Carlson to try out.

Carlson grew a few inches and blossomed into a powerful defenseman in Kansas. That led to a spot on a junior team and later an offer from Bemidji State. He'll play for the Beavers next year.

These are typical Bemidji State recruits -- guys who slip through the cracks.

"Sometimes we see some other mid-majors out there," Serratore said of the recruiting trail. "But we're not really into a lot of head-to-head battles. We have to pick our battles wisely. We work our butt off in recruiting. Sometimes we make good decisions. Sometimes we don't. If you are in a situation like ours, you have to look at a lot of different players. No question, we have a larger pool to look at than most teams."

That's why you see a hodge-podge of players lining Bemidji State's roster.

They have players from almost every Canadian province. They have players from as close as Grand Forks and Warroad, and players from as far as Alaska, California and even Sweden.

"We'll go anywhere," Serratore said.

Known far and wide

And they usually don't have any trouble explaining Bemidji State to potential recruits. Serratore said the Beavers have a large alumni network from their storied hockey past, which includes national championships at the NAIA, NCAA Division III and NCAA Division II levels.

"Not too many times do we run into a kid who hasn't heard about Bemidji State or doesn't know someone who went to Bemidji State," Serratore said. "We have alums all over North America and they spread the gospel. We're like North Dakota in that aspect. We're pretty well known in hockey circles."

With this season's run to the Frozen Four, the Beavers are becoming better known in sports circles in general.

"I don't think too many people thought the Beavs would still be playing in April," Scofield said. "This has been a great run. A lot of people who weren't big fans before are now cheering for the Beavers."