Feb. 20, 2014
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin’s nine seniors are having the times of their lives, and nobody is ready for it to end. Just ask Michael Mersch, who passed on an opportunity to join the Los Angeles Kings following his junior season for a final year in Madison with his close friends and teammates.
"I’m having too much fun here. I love going to school here, love playing hockey here, and I love all my teammates. It wasn’t really that difficult of a decision," Mersch admits.
It’s easy to see why. Between the on-ice achievements (2013 Broadmoor Trophy, the highest-scoring senior class in the country and a top-10 national ranking), earning the trust of the coaching staff and living with his closest friends on campus, life is good for Mersch and the rest of the senior class.
"We feel really good about where we are," agrees senior assistant captain Jefferson Dahl. "We’re having a lot of fun right now, and it’s been a great time the last four years, but we’re also realizing how close we are to the end."
But until that end comes, the group is enjoying the remainder of their time together both on and off the ice. Which is pretty easy to do, considering that most of them live together.
Tyler Barnes, Mark Zengerle, Frankie Simonelli and Mersch all share a pad, and it’s safe to say they get along pretty well with their next-door neighbors -- Joe Faust, Chase Drake, and Dahl.
"We’re always in each other’s rooms, watching TV together, eating together, just doing everything together," Simonelli says. "We’ve lived together since day one, and seeing each other every day, we’ve been able to build a relationship that we’ll never forget and never be able to replace."
As much as they’re going to miss their time at Wisconsin, the Badgers will miss them too, particularly the strong, steady leadership they collectively provide.
"We’ve been lucky with our nine (seniors), that they are all great people who have accepted their roles and excel in them," says head coach Mike Eaves. "It’s been fun to be around these guys, and I think we as coaches have been able to step back and let them have more input because we have trust in them. There’s great communication between us, and it’s been fun to watch their growth."
Keegan Meuer has been around to witness that growth firsthand. As a redshirt senior, he’s been easily adopted by the other fourth-year seniors. He’s been part of the group as it’s matured, and he brings an added perspective as the only Wisconsin player to be part of the 2010 NCAA tournament runner-up team.
"There are a lot of things that both teams have in common," Meuer recalls. "There’s a lot of accountability with this year’s group, and a lot of it comes internally from the captains and the older guys. There was a lot of that mentality in the 2010 team. Everybody believes in the same things, everybody wants to do the right thing to help the team win."
That leadership was forged in the fires of adversity faced early in the careers of these seniors. After missing the postseason in the first two years of their careers and starting 1-7-2 last season, the Badgers fought back to a Broadmoor Trophy and an NCAA tournament appearance last year and find themselves in solid position to build on that effort this year.
"This group has been through it all together, and that trust in each other shows in the last minutes of games. Most of the time, this season especially, we’ve come out on top in those tight games," Meuer says. "We’re looking forward to this final stretch."
Down that stretch, they’ll try to enjoy the little things. Whether it’s Simonelli cooking family meals -- "chicken thighs, kale salad, some wild rice, that’s my go-to lately," he says -- or two-on-two NHL video game sessions between Sean Little, Simonelli, Zengerle, Barnes and Mersch -- "pretty heated battles," Dahl laughs-- there’s plenty for them to savor. And that’s just off the ice.
In the last month alone, they’ve swept then-No. 1 Minnesota and played in front of the largest Kohl Center crowd ever. Add to it that they’ve been able to experience the inaugural season of Big Ten hockey and take the Broadmoor Trophy during their final year in the WCHA, and it’s a pretty impressive resume for this year’s senior class.
"We are in a unique position where we’ve done a lot of great things together as a class. It’s very exciting for all of us," Meuer says. "Being in the Big Ten now, it’s a new experience for all of us, and that keeps us sharp and keeps us honest."
But like any good resume, it’s constantly being updated.
"Those first two years we were building ourselves up. Last year was a great experience and a really nice stepping stone, but this year we’re looking to build on that and go even further," Mersch says. "It’s an honor to be all those guys’ teammates, we have a lot of memories together, and we’re going to keep sharing them down the stretch here."
If they play the way they’ve shown they’re capable of this season, there should be plenty more memories to share this year, both off the ice and on it.