With everyone excited about the prospects of a new season and a chance for an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament, the coaches of College Hockey America have selected Wayne State as the preseason favorite to win the conference. Wayne State, which enters the 2002-03 season with the nation’s longest unbeaten streak at 12 games, received five of the six first-place votes and garnered 25 points overall.
Alabama-Huntsville received the other first place vote and 20 points overall. Bemidji State came in third with 18 points, Niagara in fourth with 13, and Air Force and Findlay tied for fifth with seven points apiece.
“We’re returning everybody and that’s a good thing from our point of view,” said Wayne State head coach Bill Wilkinson. “Everyone’s gunning for us, as they were last year, and everyone’s got a lot of returning players and will give us a good challenge.”
The Warriors have three of the six preseason All-CHA selections in senior forward Jason Durbin, senior defenseman Tyler Kindle, and senior goaltender David Guerrera, who was also selected as the conference’s preseason Player of the Year. If Guerrera can follow up on his stellar junior season, he could become only the third goaltender in Division I history to repeat as its conference’s player of the year.
The other members of the preseason All-CHA team are: Bemidji forward Marty Goulet, the league’s returning scoring champion; Findlay forward Rigel Shaw, who set a CHA record with 15 goals in conference play in 2001-02; and Huntsville defenseman Tyler Butler, who led CHA defensemen in scoring last season.
The first year of the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament sees the conference’s toughest non-conference schedules to date. CHA teams will face nine of the fifteen teams in the final USCHO men’s D-I poll, including Huntsville’s trip to watch Minnesota raise their national championship banner.
The Chargers’ non-conference schedule was considered by most coaches to be the toughest of any league member, but coach Doug Ross seemed undaunted. “We’ve got one hell of a schedule this year, opening up with [WCHA members] Wisconsin, Denver, and Minnesota. We’ve got the toughest schedule we’ve ever had, but our guys are really excited about it. They’re working really hard at it. We’re really competitive as a league no matter who we play right now, and we’re looking forward to it.”
“We could win it, or we could finish sixth,” said Bemidji coach Tom Serratore. “Our first ten games and road schedule will be keys. We had enough points early on last season to keep us in second place. We want to play our best hockey at the end of the year, which we didn’t do last year.”
“It’s been unbelievable around here this fall,” said Niagara coach Dave Burkholder. “It’s been a media frenzy with the Frozen Four that we’ll host with Canisius this spring. This is our toughest schedule in our history. Doug [Ross] and I probably have the toughest non-conference schedules in the country. It’s been a different attitude since the first day of dry-land training. There’s been a lot of excitement and a ton of emotion.”
Air Force coach Frank Serratore said that his team looks to capitalize on a strong push at the end of last season, which saw them go unbeaten for eight games until a loss to Wayne State in the tournament semifinal.
“We ended on a real good note,” he said. “We struggled with our chemistry, but we got it together and turned it around. It was all about our players, and we think that’ll carry forward into this year. Who knows where we’re going to be? Regardless of that, we’re looking forward to battling and we’re in the big time now.”
“We obviously were very disappointed with last year,” said Findlay head coach Craig Barnett. “Our goal was to win the league, and we missed that. Last year we really wanted to establish ourselves, and by the end of the year we felt that we hadn’t finished that goal. We started strong, sweeping Mercyhurst, but then we seemed to get complacent.”
The Oiler program added Pat Ford as associate head coach after long time assistant Rob Haberbusch left for Iona in the offseason.
“We had to make some changes for several reasons,” said Barnett. “One of the changes was within staff when Rob departed for Iona in July. Due to his departure, we were able to get Pat Ford over from Wisconsin. I am very excited about the new addition and hope that with Pat’s past successes and experience, that this change in staff will benefit the young Oiler program and help us move up the ladder in the CHA.”
“Balance is going to be a key in this league, because you might win games with your third and fourth lines,” said Wilkinson. “I don’t think you can shut out anyone at this point, and anyone can step up and take it down the stretch. Everyone is capable of getting a hot goaltender, a hot scorer.”
Air Force, Bemidji, and Niagara open up play on Friday, October 4 with the Falcons and Purple Eagles taking part in the Lefty MacFadden Invitational in Dayton, Ohio, and the Beavers hosting Manitoba. Air Force and Niagara kick off conference play when the Falcons visit Niagara on the first weekend in November.