2003-04 CHA Preview
America won't be winning a national championship any time soon.
But, in the words of Air Force coach Frank Serratore, "The
winner of our league won't embarrass themselves in the NCAA Tournament,
No argument there. Not after Niagara shocked New Hampshire in 2000
or Wayne State thoroughly tested No. 1 Colorado College before falling
in the first round last year. The conference, the smallest in Division
I college hockey, has also started to make significant noise in
the regular season. Two of CCHA champion Ferris State's 10 losses
last year came to Alabama-Huntsville and Wayne State. Michigan State,
Minnesota-Duluth, Clarkson, Michigan Tech, St. Lawrence and Princeton
also became notches in the CHA's belt in 2002-03. It's a safe bet
that more schools from the four established leagues will be added
to the list this year, as College Hockey America continues to fight
for respect on the national level.
The easiest way to earn that recognition is to make use of the conference's
automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament and pull off a few more high-profile
upsets. One of these six teams will get such a chance this season,
although, on paper, it might be just a two-horse race.
Hold up a sec.
Wasn't Bemidji State supposed to be the breakthrough team last year?
That's what your friendly INCH prognosticators foresaw – and
they were right to a degree. The Beavers improved from 12-18-5 in
2001-02 to 14-14-8 last year, and finished tied for third in the
league with Wayne State. Look for another jump up the standings
this season. After losing a minuscule amount of players to graduation,
coach Tom Serratore complemented the large returning cast with a
solid group of freshmen. Gritty forward Andy Murray makes the offense
go, while Grady Hunt is the league's best between the pipes. A brutal
nonconference schedule will simply make things slow down for the
Beavers in league play.
FOR A FALL
made the most of their senior-laden club last year, winning the
CHA tourney and then scaring CC in the Big Dance. But coach Bill
Wilkinson knew this day was coming. Rebuilding. The Warriors lost
12 players to graduation, including goaltender David Guerrera and
forwards Dustin Kingston and Jason Durbin. With a schedule that
includes Michigan State, CC, Denver and Northern Michigan, they'll
be hard-pressed to duplicate last year's 21-17-2 record.
Niagara goalies Rob Bonk and Jeff VanNynatten both played
a bunch last year. Sometimes, they were great. Sometimes, well,
the goal judge got a workout. Both tenders posted save percentages
under .900, which ultimately saddled Niagara with the second-most
goals against in the conference. VanNynatten, then a freshman, played
more often, but Bonk, then a junior, had better numbers. Coach Dave
Burkholder will probably split time again, unless one of them distinguishes
himself during training camp or early in the season. Whoever is
in the crease will be aided by the Purples Eagles' high-powered
offense, but if Niagara has serious designs on qualifying for the
national tourney, Bonk and VanNynatten must tighten up.
ACT TO FOLLOW
in northern Ohio aren't overwhelming, but Findlay coach Pat Ford
is taking over for the only coach in the Oilers' seven-year history,
Craig Barnett. Barnett departed for the junior ranks about a month
ago and left Ford with a hard-working, if outmanned, club at Findlay.
The late summer shakeup inevitably will be a distraction to the
Oilers, although the fact that Ford was Barnett's associate coach
last season helps smooth the transition. Ford's team might be in
over its head in the early going (especially the season-opening
IceBreaker tournament), but if the players buy into his mantra of
"not being out-worked by anyone," he should have them
competitive in the league play.
This one ain't
too tough to pick. Niagara forward Joe Tallari (right) ran away
with the league scoring title and finished 11th in the nation with
26-29-55 last season. And he wasn't just abusing the cupcakes on
the Purple Eagles' schedule. The 5-foot-11, 180-pounder from Thunder
Bay, Ont., scored twice against Michigan State, North Dakota and
Western Michigan and registered a hat trick against UMass-Lowell.
His offensive proficiency made him one of 10 Hobey Baker semifinalists,
and he could make another run at the trophy with similar numbers
this season. Helping his cause, he'll have plenty of big-time games
in which to shine with Michigan, Boston University, Denver and Ferris
State dotting the schedule.
coaches couldn't point to one recruit who will come in and flip
the CHA on its head. As a whole, Wayne State might have signed the
best freshman class, and Wilkinson is especially high on 5-foot-9,
173-pound Jason Baclig of Leamington, Ont. The 21-year-old Baclig
played five seasons with the Leamington Flyers in the Western Ontario
Junior B League, where he ranked fourth in scoring (28-34–62)
in 48 games last year. He had 107 points in 54 games the year before,
and Wilkinson calls Baclig "one of those talented little players."
He could see a lot of ice time, considering the inexperience of
the Warriors' corps of forwards. Also keep an eye on Alabama-Huntsville's
Dominik Rozman, a left wing from Wallaceburg, Ont. He had 38 goals
and 32 assists in 48 games in the WOJHL last season.
Air Force forward
Shane Saum was only the fourth-leading scorer (5-10–15) on
the worst team in the CHA last year, but Frank Serratore wouldn't
trade him for anyone. Nor would his teammates, as evidenced by the
players' vote that elected Saum as the team captain this season.
The 5-foot-11, 180-pounder "will be a good Air Force officer
one day," Serratore predicted. "Every night, he leaves
everything he has on the ice." Aside from his leadership duties,
Saum will be the Falcons' top offensive threat this season. His
27 career goals are by far the most on Air Force's roster.
1. For whom
does Mrs. Serratore root when brothers Tom and Frank coach against
each other? It's a relevant question considering Air Force and Bemidji
State play in the family's hometown of Coleraine, Minn., in January.
anyone in the league have a better name than Air Force forward (and
assistant captain) Spanky Leonard? Leonard was among the Falcons'
scoring leaders last season.
will Wayne State adapt to its new digs at Compuware Sports Arena,
which is about a 35-minute drive from campus?
Four things you can take to the bank in the CHA this season
1. The conference
race will go down to the final weekend when Niagara visits Bemidji
of the Beavers, they'll win at least three of their eight games
against in-state WCHA competition (but not against the Gophers).
won't lead the nation in scoring, but he'll be close enough to again
make the Hobey list of 10 finalists.
Huntsville will come perilously close to finishing under .500 for
the first time in 13 years. But behind star-in-the-making Jared
Ross (son of head coach Doug), the Chargers will pull it out in
and Barret Ehgoetz form the best 1-2 offensive punch in the
account for 50 percent of preseason All-CHA
team (Murray, Hunt and D Bryce Methven).
lost nine seniors from regular-season championship squad.
Warriors "will be a different team from the beginning of
the season to the end," coach Wilkinson vows.
coach Ford cut his coaching teeth as an assistant under Jeff
Sauer and Rick Comley.
folded under high expectations last year, but they won't have
to worry about that this season.
this to a friend
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