When you’re at the top of the heap, everyone comes gunning for you. And after a 21-win campaign, a post-season conference championship and a trip to the NCAA tournament, Niagara University figures to have a big, purple target painted on its back.
The Purple Eagles finished with the second-best record in the team’s nine-year history in 2003-04, then knocked off the CHA regular season champs from Bemidji State to earn their second trip ever to the big dance. Head coach Dave Burkholder believes that success will be beneficial to the current season’s squad.
“The encouraging thing for me is that we have 18 players that experienced the NCAA tournament, 18 returning players,” said Burkholder. “I just look back on the two weeks – winning the CHA and then the ESPN selection show and the two week hype building up to the Boston College game – it was just an unbelievable experience. And we have 18 guys that lived that, that are coming back. And that’s got to be very motivating.”
But Niagara has more than motivation on its side. Three of the top 10 CHA scorers from last season will be in the Eagles’ lineup this year, including Hobey Baker nominee Barret Ehgoetz who led all conference scorers in goals (25) and points (52).
“Barret is our senior captain, and one of the leading scorers in the country last season,” Burkholder said. “He looks bigger, stronger and faster in our off-ice workouts. I expect him to have another great year.”
Also returning is junior forward Justin Cross, who teamed with Ehgoetz and 2003 CHA scoring champ Joe Tallari to form one of the most potent threesomes in Division-I last season.
“[Cross] ended up with 29 points in 34 games, and he’s going to be a guy that has to step up and have another breakout year. And he certainly can do it,” stated Burkholder. “He’s one of our most gifted offensive players, and he is going to start up top and play in all of our power play situations.”
The Eagles also figure to benefit from the demise of Findlay’s program, due to the transfer of Kris Wiebe during the off-season. The senior forward led the Oilers with 28 points last year and finished fourth among conference scorers with 18 goals.
“He was one of the best players in the CHA,” said Burkholder. “Just meeting him throughout the recruiting process last spring, he’s just an exceptional kid. He told me when he finally committed to Niagara that he thought this was the best chance for him to win a championship and go to the NCAA tournament. He just has so much respect in our league that our guys have welcomed him right away. I think it’s going to be a great situation for Chris and it’s going to help us.”
Niagara’s blueline remains largely intact, with the one-two punch of junior Andrew Lackner and sophomore Pat Oliveto leading the way.
“You’re talking a sophomore and a freshman that were getting the assignment of playing against Boston College’s top line last year. They’re back and they’re a year older and stronger,” Burkholder remarked. “I would say our overall depth on defense is much better. Brian Hartman’s been a workhorse since he’s been here. He’s now a junior and one of our leaders in the locker room. Then we have a nice compliment of a couple seniors, and some freshmen that are going to vie for playing time right away.”
There should be no competition between the pipes, as Jeff Van Nynatten returns for his third season. The Niagara netminder finished with a conference-high 18 victories and was named Most Valuable Player at the CHA tournament last year.
“He is a workhorse. He’s a big, strong kid,” Burkholder said of Van Nynatten, who paced the CHA in 2003-04 with 1,794 minutes played. “He wants to play every minute if we’d allow him. The bottom line is he’s the ultimate competitor and the kid wins. I think every player loves playing for him, and his spirit is contagious.”
Burkholder hopes that winning attitude will rub off on some of the one dozen fresh faces joining the Eagles in 2004.
“I would say that, if our freshmen progress as quickly as we think they should, or are capable of, it could be another special year for us. But those are the kind of things you never know,” the coach said. “How quickly can we come together? How many freshmen make the jump quickly? There’s a lot of questions that will have to play out early in the season.”
And the answers just might lead to another CHA championship.