The 2003-04 season was everything coach Tom Serratore and the Bemidji State Beavers asked for – almost.
Bemidji posted 20 wins last year, the most for the school since it joined the Division I ranks. The Beavers also captured 16 wins in CHA play, establishing a new conference record for victories in season. And the team captured its first CHA regular season championship – and the 18th conference title in school history.
That’s a successful season by any standard. But a 4-3 overtime loss to Niagara in the CHA championship game denied the Beavers of their first trip to the NCAA tournament.
“It was sure a disappointment. But hats off to Niagara,” said Serratore, now entering his fourth year behind the Bemidji bench. “We battled all year with those guys and, if you take a look at what we did during the regular season, we split, and then they won the fifth game. It happened to be in overtime. The game could have gone both ways, but they got the last break. They deserved the win. They’re a heck of a hockey team.”
The same could be said of the Beavers. Bemidji was home to the CHA Rookie of the Year (Luke Erickson), the CHA Coach of the Year (Serratore) and placed five players on the conference’s First and Second Teams at the end of the 2003-04 season.
The bad news for Bemidji is that two of those five players – defenseman Bryce Methven and goaltender Grady Hunt – both graduated last year. To add insult to injury, center Riley Riddell was suspended indefinitely from the team after being charged with third degree sexual assault in late September.
“Grady’s a tough kid to replace, there’s no question about it. He was, for four years, the starting goalie for us. That’s a big loss for us,” said Serratore. “Bryce was kind of a rock of Gibraltar back there. He was on the ice when we were up a goal, he was on the ice when we were down a goal. He was on the ice the last minute of the game, no matter what. He’s a big loss to us, there’s no question.”
Those two losses were expected. Losing Riddell, who was second on the Beavers with 13 goals and 34 points last season, was the most unpleasant of surprises. But it’s a situation the team is taking in stride.
“It has definitely sidetracked us a bit. Obviously it’s a difficult situation to deal with, but all you can do is move on and treat it like an injury,” said Serratore. “If he got injured it would be the same situation. So that’s how you’ve got to treat the situation. It’s too bad it happened, but hopefully somebody’s going to step up into Riley’s place.”
Truth be told, Bemidji has no shortage of scorers, and foremost among those is senior Brendan Cook. Cook led the team last season with 39 points, and was second among conference snipers with 23 goals overall. His five shorthanded goals were second in the nation, and his seven game-winners were tops in the CHA.
“He’s got a nose for the net, he’s got a great release, he knows where to be on the ice and big things happen when he’s on the ice,” said Serratore. “It’s like anything, you’re hoping these guys don’t have the big junior year and tail off their senior year. Hopefully they’re going to keep going north. And if Brendan does that, that’s going to be good for the Beavers.”
Erickson led all CHA freshmen with 32 points (12-20) in last season, and will be counted on to up his production in the absence of Riddell. Ryan Huddy (6-21-27) and Andrew Murray (6-14-20) also played prominent roles up front for Bemidji in 2003-04.
The Beavers return John Haider and Peter Jonsson on the blueline, who Serratore will look at to fill in for the loss of First-Teamer Methven.
“You always hope somebody can replace somebody that you’re losing. That’s just going to be the X factor for us right now,” said Serratore. “We feel we have good depth right now. We’ve got some veterans in the back line right now that are going to log a lot of minutes in Peter Jonsson and Johnny Haider. We’ve got some guys who are proven goal scorers. So we’re hoping that our experience is going to benefit us this year.”
The Beavers will look to Layne Sedevie between the pipes. Sedevie posted a 6-4-3 record and 2.70 goals against average in 13 games as a freshman, and will carry the bulk of the load in his second go-around.
In addition to Methven and Hunt, Bemidji lost seven more seniors to graduation. But Serratore isn’t putting any added pressure on his incoming freshmen to perform.
“We like our recruiting class. But it’s going to take those kids a while to get acclimate,” he said. “I always say college hockey’s a men’s league. And if you get some freshmen who can create an impact, you’re very fortunate. But the biggest thing for us right now is just to let our freshmen gain some experience and let them progress properly and see what happens. But we have a veteran corps coming back, so there’s not a lot of expectations we need from those guys.”
Many of those veterans remember that loss to Niagara in the finals last season. But Serratore said the team isn’t using a return to the CHA championship game as a source of inspiration.
“I don’t think we can worry too much about that one game shot,” he stated. “To really worry about that last game would be too premature I think. We still have to tend to business during the regular season, and we have to create a situation for ourselves where we’ll be playing in that final game.”