Flying so low under the radar that they were nearly passed over for selection to the U.S. Division I men's college hockey's 16-team playoff tournament, the Michigan Spartans completed an improbable run by winning the NCAA Frozen Four championship Saturday night at the Scottrade Centre in St. Louis, Mo. And Georgetown resident Jay Sprague's emergence as a reliable twoway player-- a rarity for freshmen in major college hockey programs-- was reflected in Michigan State's timely postseason surge-- culminating in a dramatic 3-1 victory over the Boston College Eagles in front of an NCAA-final record crowd of over 19,000 fans. The 20-year-old Sprague was left off a couple of road trips earlier in the year as the Spartans, who have produced pro prospects such as Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller in recent years, struggled through the regular season with a 15-10-3 league record. They fell to rival Michigan in the CCHA semifinals last month before narrowly squeezing into the NCAA tournament by beating Lake Superior State 7-6 in overtime in the conference consolation final. Sprague, a 6-foot-3, 217pound right winger, scored two goals during the playoff drive and helped set up the winner in last Thursday's Frozen Four semifinal against the Maine Black Bears late in the third period on a pass out from behind the net that was banged in by Michigan State's S-linemate and Toronto native Nick Sucharski. "I guess you could say it was a Cinderella story," Sprague said from the Spartans' East Lansing, Mich. campus on Monday. "We had an up and down year and it feels even better to win it knowing that a lot of people counted us out. We knew we could come together when it really mattered and the fans especially believed in us and that's what makes this team so special. We played some great teams that had big offensive stars who were supposed to run all over us and everybody wanted to talk about the players we'd lost to the pros like David Booth and Drew Miller, so hopefully we finally earned some respect around the country." The hard-working Spartans were bolstered by the goaltending of 5-foot-6 Jeff Lerg and some clutch late goals in the playoffs. As the last few seconds of regulation ticked down in Saturday's finale, Michigan State's Justin Abdelkader, the Frozen Four MVP, broke a 1-1 tie with 18.9 seconds left just moments after ringing a shot off the goal post. "When Abs hit the post, I thought we'd missed our chance to win it and we'd be going into OT, then five seconds later he scores." added Sprague, who would like to pursue a career in advertising, but hasn't ruled out playing pro hockey after graduating. "Personally I had a pretty good year, but that doesn't matter right now. My focus right now is just on (Tuesday's) parade and taking in the whole experience." Sprague's parents, John and Lauren, were in attendance for the championship game while sister Kelly and several of Jay's friends watched the final on satellite dish from the family's Georgetown home. The Spartans' downtown St. Louis hotel was coloured green by Michigan State supporters and a large turnout was expected for a parade scheduled on Tuesday night to celebrate the school's third NCAA Division I men's hockey title. "I was completely blown away to be in that atmosphere with 19,000 people," said Sprague, a member of the Georgetown Jr. A Raiders' Dudley Hewitt Cup champion side in 2005. "It was crazy. It was so intense, but we were so focused on the game and how much it meant. To be honest you didn't even notice the crowd when you're skating around the ice and it was right before game time."
As is custom, the national champs will visit the White House to meet U.S. President George Bush some time later this year. To lighten his course load during the hockey season, Sprague and some of his teammates take a summer semester of classes, meaning he likely won't be back to Georgetown to visit until the end of June. NOTES: The superb four-year Jr. A hockey career of Georgetown's Deron Cousens came to a close last week sooner than the 20-year-old defenceman had hoped but he was recognized with a couple of awards for his final season with the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League. Cousens was named the Best Defenceman for the Interior Conference and the Vees after 16 goals and 35 assists this past season, second in scoring amongst all BCHL blueliners. Headed for Michigan Tech University next season, Cousens was also named top defender at the inaugural World Jr. A Challenge in November, helping Team West claim the championship. Penticton, despite having home-ice advantage in their Interior Conference final series against Vernon, was eliminated in five games.
Georgetown's Jay Sprague (left) of the Michigan State Spartans battles with rival Michigan's Dan Fardig during an NCAA Division I contest earlier this season. The upstart Spartans won the school's first U.S. national championship in 21 years on Submitted photo Saturday, beating Boston College 3-1 in St. Louis.