This Week in Division III: Nov. 14, 2002

“A Breakthrough Moment”

It’s been an interesting couple of weekends for Marian head coach Chris Brown. After opening the season with a respectable 3-1 loss to current No. 1 St. Norbert, the Sabres started league play with a weekend series against Lawrence. Marian was coming off an undefeated season in conference play, riding a 27-game league winning streak dating back to January 19, 2001.

On Friday, Nov. 1, that all came to an end. Lawrence won 6-2, the first time in the Vikings had defeated the Sabres in 14 attempts.

The next day, Marian rebounded with a convincing 5-1 win. Quite a turnaround from the night before.

The same scenario played out the next weekend, when Marian traveled to Elmira for a two-game series, except this time, the Sabres were the underdogs.

Friday, after building a 2-1 lead on the Soaring Eagles, Marian surrendered nine unanswered goals over the final two periods and lost 10-2.

But as they had done the previous Saturday, the Sabres rebounded for a 5-4 overtime win over the 12th-ranked team in Division III.

Deja Vu?

“The circumstances were different,” said Marian head coach Chris Brown. “I don’t think either was a matter of not being ready (on Friday) or anything like that. (The losses) were both wake-up calls, though.

“On Friday at Elmira, we played well for over a period. … I thought we were still in the game at 5-2. We were still getting good chances — we talked about that in between the second and third periods. Then in the first minute and thirty seconds of the third, we let in two quick goals and that was all she wrote.”

Instead of batting down the hatches at that point, the Sabres stuck to their game plan.

“We didn’t try to trap or shut things down to make the score more presentable,” Brown said. “We said, ‘Let’s just keep playing and see what happens.’ It was embarrassing, but I think it helped us prepare for Saturday.”

The next night, Marian stayed with Elmira the entire game, squandering leads of two goals in the second period and a goal in the third. Finally, at 2:13 of overtime, junior Brad Hawkins got the game winner.

“It was a great feeling,” recalled Brown.” We had just killed off a minute and half of power play, and we scored right after that.”

The goal earned more than a weekend series split for the Sabres.

“It was a huge load of the back of our program,” said Brown. “In order to get better, you need breakthrough moments, and this was a breakthrough moment.

“It wouldn’t have been the same if we had tied. We played very hard. The guys earned it.”

MCHA — Here Today…

While Marian is clearly the class of the MCHA at this point, the rising tide is lifting all boats.

“The league as a whole is definitely attracting better players,” said Brown. “The quality of players is better than two years ago when I started.”

Examples are former MSOE player and league MVP Ryan Moren recently signing a pro contact, the first for an MCHA player, and Lawrence forward Danny Shroder capturing national honors as USCHO Division III offensive player of the week for his play last weekend.

Still, there are clouds on the horizon. Marian applied last season to join the NCHA but was voted down, 5-3. The three private NCHA schools (St. Norbert, Lake Forest, St. Scholastica) voted in favor of allowing Marian into the league, but, perhaps fearing a power shift, the five Wisconsin public schools (Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Wisconsin-River Falls, Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Wisconsin-Stout, Wisconsin-Superior) shot down the request.

“I don’t know why they voted the way they did,” said Brown. “The only thing I can say is that maybe the timing wasn’t right. I think we would have been worthy opponents in the league.”

The Sabres haven’t given up on the idea, however. They again applied for admission to the NCHA for the 2003-2004 season, and this time sources indicate that they have been joined by MSOE, Lawrence and Northland — the entire league except for Division II Minnesota-Crookston. If approved, this would essentially be a merger of the two leagues, and the end of the MCHA.

Brown is optimistic about the future of his team, no matter where it winds up. A super-conference might improve the quality of the current MCHA teams even more, plus make them eligible for a Pool C NCAA bid.

“We need to do what’s best for us, and also in the end what’s best for the west as a whole,” he said. “Things like this might force a discussion of how we can make sure we get more than three teams in the NCAA tournament.”

Phoenix Rising?

The 2001-2002 season, Neumann’s first in the ECAC West, was, head coach Nick Russo said, “an eye-opening experience.”

The Knights went 2-23 last season, and were outscored 215-37.

“We weren’t able to recruit very much for that first season in the league,” said Russo. “Very few people want to play for an independent, and we decided late in the game to join the ECAC West. Utica had a whole season to prepare, but we were kind of thrown into it.

“We had to make do with what we had, and it showed.”

The low point was a 24-0 loss to an RIT squad torn between patronizing a much weaker opponent and playing hockey. It wasn’t pretty for either team.

“Out of that destruction came some positives,” said Russo. “It opened a lot of eyes at Neumann about the commitment that was necessary. The hockey budget is already half of our entire athletic budget. If we’re going to spend that kind of money, we’ve got to take it seriously.”

After recruiting players from junior leagues as far away as Calgary and cutting several veterans, Russo is expecting slow but measurable improvement.

While the outcomes haven’t been any better (Neumann is 0-7), the scores have been. Last Saturday, the Knights lost 8-1 to RIT, outshooting the Tigers in the third period.

“We’re going slow, kind of treating the first half of the season as a kind of preseason,” said Russo.

“We’re young. We’re taking our time and looking to the future.”