State keeps pace with ’80 Olympic hockey team

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DALLAS – The comparison has been made again and again: The 2017 Mississippi State women’s basketball team and the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team.

Both did the previously unthinkable.

Team USA, a group of college players coached by Herb Brooks, defeated the before-then invincable Soviet Union in the “Miracle on Ice” en route to the gold medal. State, coached by Vic Schaefer, knocked off powerhouse UConn, 66-64 in overtime, Friday night in the Final Four, ending the Huskies’ 111-game win streak.

You should know that sports writers and sportscasters are not the only ones making the comparison.

Mike Groll, AP

Mark Wells of the 1980 U.S. Olympic ice hockey team speaks in February 2015 in Lake Placid, N.Y., 35 years after the U.S. Olympic hockey team’s stunning gold medal at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics.

“There are so many incredible similarities in the two events, the two teams,” said 59-year-old Mark Wells, by phone from Harrison Township, Mich., Saturday afternoon. “It’s eerie, really.”

Wells should be considered an expert. He watched the State-Connecticut game. He played in the so-called Miracle on Ice. He was a forward, who spent much of his ice time against the Soviet Union shadowing Valeri Kharlamov, considered the greatest of the Russian players. Kharlamov was held scoreless in the 4-3, U.S. victory.

“That Mississippi State team is built on defense,” Wells said. “We were a defensive team.

“Mississippi State was beaten by UConn 60 points last season,” Wells said. “The Russians beat us unmercifully not long before the Olympics. Nobody gave Mississippi State a chance. Nobody gave us a chance.

“Our game was tied 3-3 going into the last period and then we scored to win it,” Wells continued. “State was tied with UConn going into overtime and pulled it out.”

Melanie Thortis

Rick Cleveland

Wells paused before continuing.

“But the biggest similarity is this one,” he said. “When we beat the Soviet Union, we still had one game left to play. Many people forget that wasn’t the gold medal game and we still had to beat Finland. Mississippi State still has to beat South Carolina. That’s the biggest challenge.

“How can you get ready to play so soon after putting so much into slaying the giant? That’s the challenge. I can’t wait to watch it.”

Mississippi native and Ole Miss graduate Charlie Adams, who now lives near South Bend, Ind., can be considered a ranking expert on that U.S. hockey team. He also is a women’s basketball fan, having served as a “practice body” for Van Chancellor’s great Ole Miss teams in the early 1980s when, he says, “I got my butt kicked a lot by the Gillom sisters and Eugenia Conner.”

LM Otero, AP

Mississippi State guard Morgan William drives past head coach Vic Schaefer during a practice session on Thursday.

Adams makes his living as an inspirational speaker these days and bases most of his presentations on The Miracle on Ice, which he has researched for most of the 37 years since.

“The similarities between what is happening in Dallas now and what happened in Lake Placid in 1980 are as strong as any scenario I have seen over the years,” Adams said. “The Soviet hockey team of 1980 had a staggering collection of talent, like UConn. It took everything our boys had to beat them 4-3, just like it took everything State had to win in overtime. Dominant teams don’t go down easily, but when they do it is a significant accomplishment.

“I think one strong comparison is that goalie Jim Craig had lost his beloved mother to cancer in 1978,” Adams continued. “His mom was the one that drove him to practice and shared his dream of reaching the Olympics, even when he was a pint-sized goalie. Like Morgan William, who famously lost her dad in recent years, he was overlooked by many of the big college programs at first. When I saw Morgan interviewed after the Baylor win, I thought of Jim Craig and how when he was in goal vs the Soviets he drew strength from his mother, and held that team to just three goals.”

The comparisons continue. The U.S. beat the Soviets on a Friday and then had to play Finland on a Sunday. State is in precisely the same situation.

Wells, who at 5 feet, 7 inches was the smallest player on the U.S. team, watched State point guard William with particular interest.

“My whole life, people thought I was too small to play hockey,” Wells said. “I would bet Morgan William has heard the same things. I used it as motivation, and I am sure she does.”

Wells said Herb Brooks was the master motivator, and said he believes Vic Schaefer must have that same skill set.

“I would love to hear his pre-game talk Sunday,” Wells said. “I know one thing, it won’t be like the one Herb Brooks gave us.”

Which was?

Douglas Ball, AP

United States Olympic ice hockey coach, Herb Brooks, left, speaks to members of the team during a break in practice in Lake Placid, N.Y. in this Feb, 8, 1980 photo.

“He came into the room and stared each player in the eyes,” Wells said. “And then he said, ‘Gentlemen, this is your moment. Just know that if you lose this game, you will take it to your your f-ing grave.’ I can’t say the word because my grandmother used to wash my mouth out with soap.”

Wells paused.

“That’s all he said and then he left the room,” Wells continued. “A minute later, he comes back in and looks all around the room and again and just says: to your f-ing grave.’ Like I say, I don’t think Coach Schaefer will say anything like that.”

Probably not.

Any other similarities?

“When I saw the joy and glee on the faces of Mississippi State’s players, it reminded me of 1980,” Wells said. “And when I saw the Connecticut players fighting back tears, so brokenhearted, it reminded me of the Russians.”

Rick Cleveland, Mississippi Today’s sports columnist, this year was named Mississippi Sportswriter of the Year — an honor he achieved for the 10th time — by the National Sports Media Foundation. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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  • Keith Jones

    nice job Rick!