WILLIAMSTOWN — The hair is starting to sprout on the cheeks and chins of members of the Williams College hockey team. Beards and hockey can only mean one thing — it's playoff time.
In Williams' case, it's tournament time, as the Ephs will play their first-ever NCAA Division III hockey tournament game Saturday night at Lansing Chapman Rink.
"I've been growing it for a little while, but I guess it turned into a playoff beard, which is fantastic news," Williams goalie Michael Pinios said before practice on Wednesday. "We're so excited about this opportunity, especially since it's the first time in school history. We had a really good week of practice last week, and we're really prepared for this opportunity."
The regular-season NESCAC champions had to wait until Monday morning to find out if they would earn a golden ticket to the tournament. But Williams was one of the first names called out during the NCAA.com Division III selection show. The name right after Williams was MASCAC champion Salem State.
The eventual prize is a Division III championship. The Final Four will be played March 25-26 at the Herb Brooks Ice Arena at Lake Placid, N.Y.
The two teams will play each other for the first time since 2008. Williams won that game 5-4 in overtime.
"It means a lot" to be in the tournament, Williams defenseman Frankie Mork said. "It just shows how great of a season we had. Starting from Day One, you have to be consistent all year. I think we got better every week and every game. That just shows that we deserve to be here."
Williams' players have had a bit of a jump to their skating all week, once they found out that they would be going to the NCAA Tournament. That was thrown into a bit of doubt after eighth-seeded Tufts knocked off the top-seeded Ephs 2-1 in a NESCAC quarterfinal game. But when No. 2 Trinity, the defending Division III champion, beat Amherst in the NESCAC Tournament final, the Ephs were ready to take the Road to Lake Placid.
But Monday morning was an interesting one.
"I think we all had the butterflies in the stomach," said Mork. "I heard there were five or six guys in the same class and they were kind of following it. I went to breakfast alone, saw a couple of guys there, threw it on the computer and when we got the news we threw a little celebration quickly. We were pumped."
"It was tough to watch," Williams forward George Hunkele said. "I was shaking. I was nervous. Once they said 'Williams,' I was definitely so happy."
Williams will face a Salem State team that comes into the tournament on a 13-game winning streak. That streak, of course, includes a 4-0 win over Plymouth State in the MASCAC championship game. Salem hasn't lost since dropping a 3-1 decision to New England College back on Jan. 12.
The only team the two schools have in common is Amherst. Salem beat Amherst 5-4 in the consolation game of the Babson/Salem State Tournament. Williams went 1-0-1 against Amherst, tying 2-2 on Dec. 11 and winning 2-0 on Feb. 20, in a game that clinched the regular-season title.
The Vikings are paced by tournament MVP Marcus Zelzer. The junior goalie from Green Bay, Wisc., is 18-1-0 with a 1.78 goals-against average. He has five shutouts.
Senior forward Cam Moniz leads Salem with 19 goals and 10 assists. Sophomore forward Casey Miller is third on the team with seven goals and 16 assists. He is a transfer from Division I Sacred Heart.
"They're a good team. Like I've said before, there are a lot of good teams," Williams coach Bill Kangas said. "I think they're really talented up front. A lot of guys with a lot of points. The goalie has been playing great. He was the player of the year in their league. He's a difference maker.
"When you get to this stage, that's what usually happens. Guys step up and he has for them."
Williams comes into the game led offensively by David Italiano and Tyler Young, linemates who have eight goals each. Pinios was 12-3-1 with a 1.67 goals-against average. Pinios and Young were named to the All-NESCAC second team, while defenseman Zander Masucci was named the NESCAC player of the year.
Twelve months ago, top-seeded Trinity was upended by No. 8 Tufts in a quarterfinal game, and had to wait and watch to see if a tournament bid was forthcoming. The Bantams got their bid and eventually won the NCAA Title.
The Ephs are hoping history might repeat itself.
"We looked at Trinity from last year and they were out in the first round and came on really strong in the tournament," said Pinios. "We're hoping to follow suit."
Contact Howard Herman at 413-496-6253.