Head coach Bill Wilkinson and the Wayne State Warriors saw more than their fair share of success during the team’s first four seasons in the CHA, capturing three consecutive conference championships and earning a trip to the NCAA tournament in 2003.
But the loss of a dozen seniors following the most successful season in the program’s short history left Wayne State with a largely inexperienced squad last year, and led to the lowest win total (nine) since its inaugural CHA campaign.
The results didn’t surprise the veteran bench boss.
“You’d like to win more games. You certainly think you’re going to win more games than we did,” said Wilkinson. “Just looking at it realistically, it was pretty much where we thought we were going to be. We weren’t going to beat too many teams in our league, just from the inexperience that we had at a lot of positions.”
The Warriors entered last season with 13 freshmen — nearly half of the roster — and only four sophomores who had previously seen significant playing time.
“You start all over basically,” Wilkinson said. “It was a real learning curve for them. That’s the good part of it: they do get a chance to learn, because they’re playing in a lot of key roles, they’re not sitting on the bench watching. Although they’ve taken their lumps, you also take into consideration what they can give back in the future.”
Two of the players that benefited most from the tribulations of last season were Nate Higgins and Jason Baclig, who finished atop the Warriors’ scoring list with 23 and 22 points, respectively, as freshmen. Baclig’s 13 goals were tops on the team, while Higgins’ eight tallies placed him third. They both figure to play big roles in the offense again this year.
“We knew that Jason Baclig was going to be a scorer, because he always scored in the Western Junior Hockey League,” Wilkinson said. “[Higgins] had a good experience in the USHL, so he was a pretty complete player. I didn’t put any pressure on them to do anything magical. I just wanted to allow them to kind of feel their ways through the league.
“Nate’s got a real good upside to him, in regards to his tempo. And Jason’s a very smart, intelligent type of player. I think just learning last year, from the rinks we’re playing in to what teams we’re playing against, it’s going to be a real positive sign for them. I just think that they’re going to have, not breakout years, but have real solid years in regards to contributions to the team. We’re looking for both of them to be the leaders for us.”
Two other semi-fresh faces will join Higgins and Baclig up front, those being Mike Forgie and Jason Bloomingburgh. Fergie appeared in two games with the team last season before suffering a season-ending injury against St. Lawrence on Oct. 11. Bloomingburgh sat out last season after transferring from Providence, where he recorded six points (3-3) in 18 games as a freshman in 2002-03. They’ll help to offset the losses of Billy Collins and Nathan Rosychuk, who both left for the pro ranks after their junior years.
“Those two guys should add a great deal of experience and leadership,” Wilkinson stated. “Up front, I think we’ve got a relatively good nucleus of forwards that can be offensively potent if given the chance.”
Perhaps the area that will see the most benefit from the trying 2003-04 season will be the defense. Wayne State’s blueline featured three freshmen and two sophomores taking regular shifts last year. Having that core group returning intact — with a full season together under their belts — should do wonders for the team which allowed a conference-high 80 goals in CHA play.
“They got indoctrinated pretty good last year,” laughed Wilkinson. “[Greg] Poupard and [Steve] Kovalchik are our two juniors that played a great deal as freshmen, so they’ve played two solid years straight through. Danny Iliakis and Taylor Donohoe were two of the other kids who got a lot of time, and Matt Boldt got a lot of time as a freshman. We have really five guys that have seen a lot of ice time and should gain from that playing experience.”
Junior Matt Kelly shouldered the bulk of the goaltending duties last season, and took home All-Tournament honors after allowing a conference-low five goals during the CHA postseason. But he’ll have strong competition for the No. 1 spot with the transfer of former Findlay standout Will Hooper, who finished third in the conference with a 2.64 goals against average last season.
“Right now I think we’re looking at giving both guys an opportunity to play,” said Wilkinson. “Will is much bigger, covers a lot of the net just by his size alone. Matt is maybe a little bit more mobile. I wouldn’t say more athletic, but he’s a little smaller, so he has to be a little bit more aggressive with his style of play.
“I think both of those guys will reap the benefits of the experience of not only our defense, but our forwards up front playing defense in our own end.”
Just how quickly Wayne State returns to the upper echelon of the CHA remains to be seen. But don’t be surprised if the Warriors end up back in the NCAA tournament sooner than later.
“I think that we have a significant group of kids here that have shown that they’re very capable of being successful,” said Wilkinson. “We just have to wait and see how the season shakes it down. I look with a lot more positive anticipation this year than certainly last year.
“I think we’re on pretty good footing at this time.”