It’s been six years since Ryan Massa backstopped an Omaha team to an NCAA Tournament run. A young Omaha roster that was picked sixth in the NCHC preseason poll and written off by most people around the sport, Massa led the Mavericks all the way to the Frozen Four.
“We were certainly never expected to be there at the beginning of that year,” Massa said. “We were a very freshmen and sophomore heavy team and that was the first real experience of postseason hockey for any of us. I remember the program lost to Michigan in the regional prior to my freshman year, but there wasn’t anyone in our group that had tournament experience.
“So I recognized that and did everything to make sure I was able to give the guys a little bit more confidence and get their feet under them, especially in the first game against Harvard. The only thing I really had on my mind that week was focusing on preparing myself to give us the best chance to move on.”
Six years later, Massa will watch another Omaha team play in an NCAA Regional, and the two situations are eerily similar. The Mavericks were also picked to finish sixth in the NCHC preseason poll, their roster features 18 underclassmen, and once again, they even share a regional with Minnesota State Mankato.
There are also a few similarities between the pipes with Massa and Isaiah Saville. There’s the obvious of the same jersey number, the same number of regular season wins (12), and the two even played for the same junior team, the Colorado Thunderbirds. This weekend though, the two will add another similarity between them. Goaltender of an NCAA Tournament team.
“This is a new experience for everyone here,” Saville said. “We’re a very young team and I know it’s something new for all of us, but we’re also very mature. It’s truly a great opportunity for us both individually and as a program.
“Coach has been telling us to really live in the moment and not look into the future. We’re in the national tournament, we’re here, and now we need to savor it, because not every team in the NCAA gets to experience this. It’s an honor to be in this situation.”
On top of the similarities in the net, there’s also been a relationship built between the two over the past year. Massa, who is still involved in the sport working with youth goalies, reached out to Saville last summer and invited him to help instruct at his MavX hockey camp in Omaha. They’ve stayed in contact since.
“He’s a great kid and has had a very good season, so it’s been pretty cool to follow him this year,” Massa said. “He was a Thunderbird and I’m an alumni of that organization as well, we both played in the USHL, and now he’s putting himself in a position to do the very same thing that I was able to do for Omaha. It’s kind of funny there are a few connections there.
“I think he’s a kid that’s extremely ready for this type of opportunity though and the beauty of it is you’re two wins away from the championship weekend. He’s taken a huge step this season and if he does what he has so far this year, I’m certainly expecting Omaha to turn some heads this weekend.”
A native of Anchorage, Alaska, the current Omaha netminder doesn’t remember much about the run Massa led that 2014-15 team on, besides the highlights and clips he’s seen on social media. He admits all he really knew about UNO at the time was that they played Division I hockey.
Saville grew up following his hometown team in Anchorage but he never spent much time watching the NCAA Tournament. The Seawolves haven’t made a tournament appearance since 1992, eight years before Saville was even born. Now he’s one of those 18 underclassmen on an Omaha roster that will get the chance to play on the big stage.
“We have a lot of confidence and I have a lot of confidence in our group,” he said. “Just from last year to this year, it’s been a big difference and it shows in our record and placement in the standings. Especially when we’re going up against top-10 teams on a regular basis and you play North Dakota six times, you can build confidence off of that. Whether you’re getting wins or even if they’re just close games.
“We really realize that we have something special here, so that’s very reassuring for all of us that we know we have the guys in the room to make things happen.”
As for the last Maverick goaltender to go through a tournament run, Massa knows all too well the importance of goaltending this time of year. It’s something he experienced first-hand.
“You can rewind however many Frozen Four’s in the past that you want to, but for the most part, a hot goalie is the difference between going to Boston in our case or being one-and-done at a regional,” he said. “It’s the most important position on a team and it’s the one that carries the most responsibility in terms of preparation and execution, so it really comes down to what you get in net.
“Playoffs are a whole new season. So if you get a goalie that gets hot at the right time of year, there’s a lot of scary things that you can do with that. I’d be willing to bet the teams that have a hot goalie this weekend are the teams you’ll see represented in Pittsburgh.”
Massa remembers having a “weird feeling of optimism” heading into South Bend, but the biggest key was the preparation throughout the week leading up. It started with blocking out any and all distractions, which included refusing to read any of the press coverage about the tournament or paying attention to social media. Especially with the doubt that surrounded his team.
Once again, it’s similar to the position the current Mavericks find themselves in as the fourth seed.
“Listening to someone else’s opinion of my team or our lineup, I just didn’t have any time for it,” Massa said. “I didn’t need any other external factors that made it any bigger of a weekend than it already was. I just tried to take it one day and one practice at a time before we left.
“It’s very similar to the advice coach Gabinet is giving the guys this week. Embrace it and don’t make it any bigger than it already is, but you just need to focus on your role as an individual and eliminate that extra outside noise.”
Even with the bigger stage and pressure riding on him, the sophomore doesn’t plan on approaching Saturday any different from any other game. Saville knows goaltending can dictate how far a team will go at this time of the year, but he’s also confident in the group he’s got in front of him. When the puck drops, it’s business as usual.
“There’s obviously pressure, but there’s pressure on everyone this time of year,” he said. “You don’t have a good goalie without a great team in front of you, and you don’t have a great team without a good goalie, so it’s such a yin and yang kind of thing. Especially in hockey where it’s legitimately a team sport, you can’t have just one good guy and be able to win games.
“You have to have a complete team, and that’s what we have here. I don’t focus on being the center of attention just because I’m the goalie, it’s a group effort, and I’m just going to focus on doing my part.”
While Saville will try to do his part on the ice, Massa will be watching closely just over an hour south of Loveland from his hometown of Littleton, Colorado. As someone who found himself in the very same position in the spring of 2015, he’s looking forward to seeing someone else follow in those same footsteps.
“If you go into this weekend looking at it as a marathon and you start overlooking that first game, that’s where you get into trouble,” he said. “So my advice to Savvy is to literally stay the course. Keep your routines, do what you’ve done all season, and focus on the fundamentals, because you need them when the pressure is on more than ever.
“I firmly believe he’s going to be that guy to take Omaha on an NCAA Tournament run and I don’t think there’s anything that would make me believe he isn’t ready for this. He just needs to control what he can control, execute his fundamentals and maintain a relentless positive mindset. Above all though, believe in himself and his team, because they will do things they might not even believe that they can do. That’s exactly what happened to us.”
Saville will get his chance to do that Saturday night against No. 2 Minnesota.