The Warriors beat out U.S. International University in San Diego for the final spot in the 1988 NCAA Division I Tournament.
Despite two losses to the Gulls and playing a predominantly Division III schedule, Merrimack was the NCAA selection committee’s at-large choice over USIU. The Warriors (29-4) simply had a better winning percentage than USIU (23-13).
Galling though it was for the Gulls — “I’ve been coaching for 14 years, and this is one of the most frustrating things I’ve experienced,” USIU head coach Brad Buetow told the Los Angeles Times — the Warriors earned their place.
In the sports moment judged the greatest in school history, Merrimack scored seven consecutive goals to beat Hockey East champion Northeastern on March 19, 1988, and advance in its first NCAA Tournament.
The two-game series was decided by aggregate goals. Northeastern won 5-3 in Game 1 and took a 3-0 lead early in the second period of Game 2 for an 8-3 overall advantage.
But the Warriors battled back — literally. A first-period hit behind the net on Merrimack’s Mike Boyce sparked a brawl — resulting in 62 minutes of penalties — and the Warriors.
“That’s what turned it around for us,” Merrimack’s Mark Ziliotto told the Eagle-Tribune’s Mike McMahon in 2015. “We sent the message that we weren’t going to be pushed around and it lit a fire. I think Northeastern was like, ‘Whoa, they aren’t going anywhere.’
“We were getting beaten in the game, and now they were trying to push us around. We weren’t going to let that happen.”
Merrimack battered Northeastern goalie Bruce Racine with a barrage of goals:
- Jim Vesey, Merrimack’s leading scorer, tallied the first at the 13:57 of the second period.
- Jocko Magadini tied the series at 8 with his first goal of the season at 11:00 of the third period.
- Ziliotto scored his third of the game, the series-winner, at 17:13 of the third on a 50-foot blast.
- Richard Pion added another at 19:00, Merrimack’s fifth of the final period.
“The last thing you want to do is wake up a sleeping giant,” Ziliotto said, “and that’s what happened.”
The Warriors weren’t done, though their inferiority complex showed before a quarterfinal matchup with Lake Superior State.
“Somebody will have a sign all printed up,’’ head coach Ron Anderson joked, “‘WELCOME MERRIMAC.’ Without the K.’’
Merrimack’s 4-3 victory in Game 1 an unwelcome result for Lake Superior State. But the Lakers won 5-0 in Game 2 to take the series 8-4. They went on to win the national championship.
The Warriors, now a member of Hockey East, returned to the NCAA Tournament in 2011. They lost 4-3 to Notre Dame in overtime.
But there was no question they belonged.
On the cover and middle: Merrimack coach Ron Turner celebrates with his players. (Courtesy Merrimack College Archives)
THIS WEEK’S GREATEST MOMENTS
• Monday: Maine and Marshall
• Tuesday: Massachusetts (UMass) and Massachusetts Lowell (UMass Lowell)
• Wednesday: McNeese and Memphis
• Thursday: Mercer and Merrimack
• Friday: Miami (Ohio) and Michigan Tech