It is most definitely a clich, but Neumann stunned the college hockey world when they walked away with the 2009 national championship last March. After stumbling through most of the season, the Knights got hot in the playoffs and ran the table all the way to the final buzzer in Lake Placid.
That team was led by a group of 12 seniors, who as freshmen joined a perennial doormat team that was also rocked with off-ice issues. That group took it upon themselves to build the program from the ground up and now have set the bar very high for future classes.
“That group of seniors built this program, were the foundation of it, and now what we are trying to do with the younger kids is build off of that and take the next steps,” said Neumann coach Dominick Dawes. “The young guys have learned a little bit since they have gotten here, getting a sense of the amount of work that those guys put in to get to that level. A lot of it is the translation for the guys who returned from last year’s team to show the younger guys the amount of work that it takes.”
Coach Dawes finds himself with a much, much younger team heading into this season. With only five upperclassmen, leadership could be an issue.
“We have a lot of young guys here,” said Dawes. “We had to replace half the team. We’ll start from scratch, continue to get better, and build off what we accomplished last year.”
Fourteen freshmen will step onto the ice for Neumann this season, covering every position on the ice. The Knights coaching staff were looking to recruit a certain kind of hard working player, similar to the style of last year’s seniors, to continue the team’s success.
“There [are] a lot of freshmen,” said Dawes. “At this point, I’m not sure about them yet. We brought in a good solid young group, with a couple of transfers in there as well. I expect them to step in and make a pretty big impact. We were looking for guys that fit into the Neumann mentality of blue collar, hard working guys who are going to go out there and lay it on the line.”
In addition to the 14 first year players, three transferred into Neumann this season: Brent Tamane from D-Is Bemidji State and William LaCasse and Cory Park from D-III Buffalo State.
There are fewer question marks in goal this season for the Knights as Ross MacKinnon comes off a stellar freshman season. He will be looked to as the starting netminder again this season, but expect fellow sophomore Matt Tendler to push MacKinnon along.
“I expect [MacKinnon] to be No. 1,” said Dawes. “Everyone knows it is his job, but I think we have a guy right behind him that is going to push him to get better.”
Repeating as champions is never easy in any sport and Division III college hockey isn’t any different. Just ask the previous two national champions, St. Norbert and Oswego, both of whom failed to make the NCAA tournament the year after they won it all.
With a very young team, Neumann certainly has its work cut out for it.
“The biggest challenge is to get these guys to step in and make the adjustment to college hockey and to become a team,” said coach Dawes.