The last time Merrimack was in the field for the NCAA Division I Ice Hockey Championship, Warriors head coach Mark Dennehy was a freshman at Boston College under Len Ceglarski. The players he coaches in North Andover, Mass., were in diapers, if they were alive at all. Most importantly, when they went to the NCAA tournament in 1988, the Warriors had yet to join Hockey East.

Since Merrimack joined the conference in 1989 after five years as a Division I independent, there’s been a parade of beatings at the hands of perennial powers like Boston College, Maine and New Hampshire, visiting fans filling the seats at J. Thom Lawler Arena, and 21 consecutive seasons in which the Warriors have finished with a record below .500.

Dennehy himself presided over the worst of these – a 3-27-4 campaign in 2006-07, his second year behind the bench – but the perseverance that he and his players have shown is paying off. After finishing the regular season with a record of 22-8-4, the No. 7 Warriors swept then-No. 14 Maine in a Hockey East quarterfinal series, setting up Friday’s Hockey East semifinal game against New Hampshire. As they prepare to face the No. 10 Wildcats, the Warriors are closing in on a likely NCAA tournament berth for the first time in 23 years.

“I’ve always said that if we could just get ourselves to the middle of the pack in this league then I think we could compete nationally,” Dennehy said. “It is a challenge though, and that is why I wanted to coach in Hockey East. Our guys came to Merrimack wanting a good education but they also wanted to compete against the best in college hockey.”

The Warriors showed they were ready to compete against the best the nation had to over when they beat Boston College on October, 30, and then won the season series against the reigning NCAA Champions on the night after Thanksgiving. In 12 regular-season games against Hockey East’s traditional “Big Four” – BC, BU, New Hampshire and Maine – the Warriors went 6-4-2, then made up for the losses against the Black Bears by sweeping them out of the Hockey East playoffs.

“Mark’s been around,” said UNH head coach Dick Umile. “He’s a very bright guy with a great hockey background. He’s done a great job in the recruiting and obviously coaching,
everybody bought into it.”

The crown jewel of Dennehy’s recruiting efforts is sophomore forward Stephane Da Costa. Last season’s national Rookie of the Year, Da Costa has 14 goals and 27 assists in 30 games for the Warriors, ranking 10th in the nation with 1.31 points per game. The Paris native was named a Hockey East Second Team All-Star on Thursday night at the conference awards banquet.

“When he has ice, he’s a magician,” Dennehy said of the Frenchman. “Every time he touches the puck, he makes good things happen, and everybody’s in play. He touches the puck, anybody on our team is a scoring option.”

That said, however, Dennehy sees his team’s true strength coming from his veterans, including the seniors like Chris Barton and Joe Cucci, who are tied with Da Costa for second on the team with 14 goals, and were freshmen on the team that won just three games.

“Coming into this year we thought we had a pretty good team,” Dennehy said. “Everyone was looking at Stephane Da Costa’s return and we were thrilled about that but our best players are our older players.”

One of those older players is junior goaltender Joe Cannata. A native of Wakefield Mass., Cannata was second among Hockey East players in overall save percentage, and was named an honorable mention Hockey East All-Star.

“He has a real calm demeanor to him,” Denney said. “A good goaltender has to make one save and that is the game-winning one. He has done a great job of that all season long. Like a lot of our players, he has flown under peoples’ radars. Just look at our 7th place preseason poll and a lot of people didn’t give us much of a chance.”

Young or old, all the players in the Merrimack lineup have earned what they’ve gotten.

“We’ve worked very hard at creating a culture of meritocracy,” Dennehy said, “where if you work hard, you’re going to get rewarded. Those are good life lessons for those guys.”

Another key life lesson is not to get ahead of yourself, which is why the Warriors’ focus on Friday afternoon will be squarely on the Wildcats.

“Their puck skills are extremely good,” Dennehy said of UNH. “I just watched their game versus UVM and they were outshot 14-4 in the first period but they were up 1-0. Their special teams play is good and their goaltender has played really well. They came within one game of winning the Hockey East Championship this year. We have our hands full.”

The Warriors have their hands full, but this weekend, they should still be able to grab the next rung on the ladder as they rise to the top.