College men's hockey: No regrets for Bulldogs' Thomas, Mavericks' Randolph on collegiate choices
Hermantown native Jared Thomas and Duluth native Jake Randolph grew up as fans of Minnesota Duluth and made their college commitments just days apart in January 2012.
Thomas decided to stay close to home and play for the Bulldogs. Randolph chose to go, following his gut 530-plus miles to Nebraska-Omaha.
Neither has looked back to wonder, "What if?"
"I wouldn't regret anything about the decision," Randolph said.
"I wouldn't do it any other way," Thomas said.
Thomas and Randolph will face off this weekend when the seventh-ranked Bulldogs and No. 14 Mavericks close out the regular season with a pair of NCHC contests at 7:07 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Amsoil Arena.
They're two of four Northland seniors who are playing some of their final games at Amsoil Arena along with Esko native Karson Kuhlman and Grand Rapids native Avery Peterson.
Kuhlman, the former Cloquet-Esko-Carlton standout, has played all four years at UMD like Thomas. Peterson is in his second full season with the Bulldogs after starting his college career in Omaha.
Thomas' ties to UMD run deeper than just fandom as a kid (Judd Medak was his favorite player).
His father, Mike, was an All-America offensive lineman for the football team. His uncle, Corey, and grandfather, Ron, also played football. His mother, Kelli (Ritzer) is a UMD Athletic Hall of Famer after an all-conference basketball and softball career.
Within an hour of receiving a scholarship offer, Thomas said he had a quick chat with his mom and then committed.
"I didn't really take the opportunity to go or see anything else," Thomas said. "UMD was the first one to offer and I didn't hesitate to take it. I'm happy with the decision. I don't regret it. It's a cool thing to follow the Thomas footsteps at UMD."
Thomas is having his best season yet at UMD, posting collegiate-highs in goals (8), assists (13) and points (21). He's tallied two goals and three assists in the last three games to help vault the Bulldogs to third in the NCHC — securing a home playoff series next weekend — and eighth in the Pairwise rankings, the system used to select and seed the NCAA tournament.
Thomas struggled to score his first three seasons at UMD, recording 10 goals and 24 assists after scoring 24 goals in both his junior and senior seasons with the Hawks. He had 40-plus points in each of his two junior seasons.
There was pressure as a freshman and sophomore to score like he did in his high school and junior days, Thomas said. After getting past that, Thomas said he was able to settle into his role at UMD and become a much more complete player offensively and defensively.
And now the bounces are going his way, he said.
"It's been a fun ride. I've had some ups and downs along the way, but that's what made it even that much more special," Thomas said. "It's been everything I dreamed of as a kid, just coming and wearing the Bulldog jersey and playing in this arena and everything else that has come along with it. It's been a cool experience and something that I'll obviously remember forever."
Randolph, who played for his father, Mike, at Duluth East, said he's had many special memories at Amsoil Arena and playing at UMD was always in the back of his mind while growing up. That was the team he always watched, but he said playing for the Bulldogs was never a high priority.
So when Dean Blais, the International Falls native and former two-time national championship coach at North Dakota, offered in person a full-ride to play for the Mavericks, Randolph jumped at the chance.
"I wasn't all about going to school in Duluth. I wanted to get away from home," Randolph said. "I got that advice from my brother, who decided to do the same thing. He said get away from home and you'll mature a lot more, grow as a person and meet all new people. I was all for that."
Randolph has not only played collegiately in Omaha, but spent two years there playing junior hockey for the United States Hockey League's Omaha Lancers. That how he originally fell in love with the city, attending tryout camps there after being drafted by the Lancers in 2011.
"I've made some special friendships in Omaha in six years. It kind of all hit me last weekend when we had our senior weekend," said Randolph, who has five goals and 19 assists in 30 games this year. "There were a lot of fans that went up to me and just thanked me for the entertainment the past six years. That was something really special and made me realize what a great opportunity I got here."
Peterson, 22, has lived in both worlds, playing three semesters with Randolph in Omaha before transferring to UMD for his final five semesters. Peterson had to sit out the 2016 winter and 2017 fall semesters at UMD per NCAA transfer rules.
The 2013-14 Minnesota Mr. Hockey committed to Omaha prior to his senior season — and two months after he was taken by the Minnesota Wild in the sixth round of the 2013 draft — at Grand Rapids after being steered that way, he said.
Peterson, who was a teammate of Randolph's in a Frozen Four as a freshman and again as a junior last year at UMD with Thomas, said he's found the hockey community in Duluth (population 86,265) to be much more supportive than Omaha (408,958). It also can be more critical, especially if you're from the hockey-crazed area.
"Coming from Grand Rapids, it's kind of like Texas football there. Everyone has their two cents," said Peterson, whose been in and out of the Bulldogs' lineup this season. "Even just playing high school hockey there is a lot of pressure. That follows through coming home to Duluth. Everybody is watching the stats and watching the scores. They keep you on your toes a little bit."
Despite the extra pressure that can come from playing close to family and friends, Peterson said he wishes he had spent all four years in Duluth.
"The culture in Duluth is pretty cool. I think it's special," he said. "I don't think you get that many other places in the nation. To get to play in a place like that is special."
NEBRASKA-OMAHA (16-14-2) AT UMD (18-13-3)
What: NCHC season finale
When: 7:05 p.m. Friday/Saturday
Where: Amsoil Arena
TV: My9 Friday/ Fox Sports North-Plus Saturday
Radio: KDAL-AM 610/KDAL-FM 103.9
Internet: KDAL610.com (audio); nchc.tv (video)