After the Gophers defeated North Dakota in Sunday's NCAA West Regional final, captain Taylor Matson gave a shout-out to strength and conditioning coach Cal Dietz. "Cal pushed us to the limit this season in the weight room and off the rink,'' Matson said in a postgame news conference. "Credit to him for pushing us so hard. He's really an inspiration to us.''

Even before the first puck dropped in October, Matson said the summer workouts Dietz oversaw had prepared the Gophers for a turnaround. When they kept their resurgence going Sunday by earning a place in the Frozen Four, he reflected again on the weight-room sessions that began only two weeks after last season ended. But Dietz, the Gophers strength coach since 2000, knew there was more to the story.

He didn't make the offseason program any harder than usual. Nor did he challenge the players any more than he always had. They were the ones, Dietz said, who took the framework he gave them and used it to build something memorable.

In Sunday's third period -- after he gave them a heartfelt speech in the locker room -- Dietz could see the strength and endurance the Gophers had developed over 53 weeks of training and competition. Better yet, he could see the commitment, the persistence and the brotherhood that was nurtured over the same period of time. The Gophers might not have noticed those qualities growing alongside measurable assets such as sprint times or bench presses. Dietz did, which made it especially rewarding to see them achieve so much.

"Over the years, we've had a lot of talent,'' Dietz said. "But it's about the group coming together as a team and not being selfish in any way. These guys support each other and believe in each other.

"What I saw with this team was that the kids kept pushing themselves every day in practice. No matter whether they were winning or losing, they kept listening to their coaches and working hard. They never wavered. They pushed themselves, because they knew where they wanted to be.''

Dietz works with seven Gophers sports, including the women's hockey team that won the NCAA championship earlier this month. He has a special fondness for hockey and Olympic sports; his wife is Karyn Bye Dietz, who helped lead the U.S. Olympic women's hockey team to a gold medal in 1998 and a silver in 2002.

His offseason workouts aren't mandatory. But last summer, every player participated. Five days a week, they came to the weight room for sessions that lasted about an hour and a half and included weight lifting, agility drills and other exercises.

In addition to building their bodies, Dietz studies team dynamics and leadership, believing those can be groomed in the weight room as well. Last summer, he noticed two good signs: There were no cliques among the players, and they policed themselves to ensure everyone was giving his best effort every day.

Matson's work ethic set the standard for the group. Dietz encouraged him and others to take on more responsibility, to develop the peer leadership so critical to championship teams. He knew it was taking root when the team reached the toughest point in the summer schedule.

"There usually comes a time when guys are overtrained, and you see them regress,'' he said. "That's planned, so they recover and come back stronger. Usually at that point, I have to step up and push them -- but this time, when they got tired, they actually kept pushing themselves. They kept working hard because they held themselves accountable.''

At the second intermission of Sunday's game, Dietz was asked to speak to the team in the locker room. He reminded them that the work they put in over the past year was not the only thing that brought them to the brink of the Frozen Four. Their commitment really began years ago, when their parents and youth coaches became the first to nudge them toward this ambition.

As the Gophers prepare for the NCAA semifinals over the next 10 days, Matson and his teammates will continue to draw strength from their summer of striving. Should they try to give credit to Dietz, he will send it right back to them.

"To be able to turn around from the seasons we've had recently, to move in the direction we knew this program could go, that's very hard,'' he said. "These kids understand how much work went into this season. They were the ones who moved things in the right direction. I'm just glad to see it all come to fruition for them.''

Rachel Blount •