Nearly three years ago, Dave Weaver was hired to be Montana State’s head hockey coach. The program was founded in 1998, and success had evaded the Bobcats. Upon his hiring, Weaver brought a simple but challenging goal to the team: win a national championship.

Fast forward, and the Bobcats at last have their first opportunity to compete on the national stage. The Bobcats will play in the American College Hockey Association Division 2 National Championships for the first time in program history on Friday in Texas.

After a seven-month season, the Bobcats are one of the final 16 teams playing at their level. MSU is matched up in a bracket with Aquinas College, which the Bobcats will first play, as well as Northeastern University and Penn State.

“The kids who have been here for three years, we’ve had our ups and downs,” leading goal scorer Ryan Padden said. “Everything we’ve worked for is finally coming together, and it feels good.”

The season wasn’t always trending in this direction. Battling illnesses and a long season, the Bobcats lost both of their games in the Mountain West League Playoffs, moving them from the No. 8 seed to the 11th seed in the ACHA Division 2 West Region Tournament.

The Bobcats were far from a favorite to make it past regionals. In fact, the team wasn’t even sure if it was going to get its chance to head to Arizona and compete at all.

Heavy snow hit Bozeman days before they were scheduled to take off, causing the Bobcats’ original travel plans of driving to the tournament to fall through. But Allegiant Airlines stepped in and offered free travelling accommodations.

“All the pieces fell into place when the team was at its lowest low. We thought we weren’t going to make it to regionals,” assistant coach Pete Kamman said. “Overcoming that adversity really brought the group together.”

Still, the Bobcats faced even more challenges ahead. With a 15-12 overall record, the Bobcats entered the regional tournament with bleak odds of qualifying for nationals. But the Bobcats had played some of the best teams in the country, preparing them for the rigor of postseason competition.

The team proceeded to win all three of their regional matchups, highlighted by a four-goal third period in a 5-4 comeback win against No. 3-seeded Boise State and a 7-4 win over No. 5 Williston State College, a team the Bobcats had lost to four times in their five previous matchups.

The Bobcats qualified for regionals for the first time in program history, then again made history by making the national for the first time. MSU hopes to continue hitting program milestones this week.

“It’s huge for the program. This is my last year, but our coaches’ phones are off the hook practically,” MSU captain Luke Bing said. “They have guys contacting them every day wanting to come play here because we’re on the map.”

This tournament marks the end of three Bobcat careers. Bing, starting goalie Christian Butler and defenseman Michael Truex will play their final hockey games wearing the blue and gold in Texas.

Bing and Padden lead the highest-scoring line for the Bobcats. Bing has contributed a team-high 35 points on 20 goals and 15 assists. His linemate, Padden, has contributed a team-high 22 goals on his way to 33 points.

Butler wants to embrace the moment, but he admitted to struggling to grapple with that while playing the game. He added he feels motivated in every game — each one could possibly be his last.

“It makes it a little more exciting,” Butler said. “You kind of have that motivation where you don’t want this to be your last game. It drives you to perform more.”

The tournament appearance shows the direction the program is heading. Around Bozeman and MSU’s campus, the players have noticed an increased interest. Fellow students have recognized the players and inquired about the team’s success.

Around Bozeman, the community has responded to the team’s financial burdens. The hockey program is a club sport at Montana State, meaning the university doesn’t allocate funds to the team. Instead, the hockey club is supported by player dues, sponsorships and team fundraising.

Running short on funds to facilitate the trip to Texas, the team started a GoFundMe and raised over $21,000 in 11 days.

“Our goal since Day 1 when our coach took over the program three years ago was to win a national championship,” Bing said. “That’s what we’re all here to do. The last two years, we weren’t quite that caliber of team. Now we have the right guys to do it.”

Colton Pool can be reached at cpool@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2690. Follow him on Twitter @CPoolReporter.