This Week in the CHA: Jan. 2, 2003

Thoughts pecked while wondering where my 2002 went …

Last weekend was huge in terms of College Hockey America teams garnering respect around the country as Bemidji State played North Dakota tough in the Subway Classic.

“They fought hard,” Sioux coach Dean Blais told USCHO’s Patrick Miller. “We knew they were going to fight all the way to the end. This was their chance to knock off the number-one team in the country and they almost did.”

A CHA team beating the No. 1 team in the country … what a long way this little conference has come in four years.

The biggest win of the weekend went to Alabama-Huntsville, which defeated No. 8 Ferris State in the first round of the UConn Classic. Ferris was the highest-ranked team that the Huntsville program had ever beaten.

“Obviously, this is a huge win for us,” Charger coach Doug Ross said. His players agreed, especially defenseman Ian Fletcher.

“This is my fourth year here, and I know the history of this program,” Fletcher said. “That was our biggest win, no doubt.”

The Chargers’ sentiment is now to build on that win. And, frankly, that’s the feeling of every coach, every player, every fan. CHA teams are making waves nationally. Are they winning all the time? No. Are they beating the top teams? Not always.

Are they getting close? You bet.

Read the words of Wayne State coach Bill Wilkinson after his team blasted Princeton 7-0 at the Rensselaer/HSBC Holiday Hockey Tournament: “Any time you play other leagues you’re always trying to win games for your league, and we’re the young guys on the block. The more times we can beat teams, it’s a positive sign for our league.”

Folks have got to be taking notice. For the future of the CHA, it’s got to be young kids across the United States and Canada.

UAH defenseman Jeremy Schreiber tells of being recruited by a couple CHA schools: “You know, three years ago I looked at a brochure and said, ‘Alabama-Huntsville? Those guys have got to be brutal.’ But I heard from (Charger assistant) Lance West, and (former Findlay and current Iona assistant) Rob Haberbusch, and I got to looking at the league, and the chance to play for an autobid is what I wanted.”

One of the six CHA member schools is going to get that autobid this year. Whoever it is will bring notoriety to their school, their fans, and their program. But with that recognition also comes recognition for a league that’s growing and getting stronger every weekend.

CHA teams placed first (UAH) and second (Findlay) in the UConn Classic, second (Bemidji) in the Subway Classic, and second (Wayne State) in the Rensselaer/HSBC Holiday Hockey Tournament. It’s not Niagara shocking New Hampshire in the 2000 NCAA’s, but it’s still something to build upon.

Keep on building, everyone.

Weekend Matchups

It’s a short week for everyone in college hockey, myself included. There’s a good slate of games involving CHA schools, so let’s get to the action.

Ferris State at Niagara

The Bulldogs are smarting over their loss to the Chargers. They looked lethargic against UConn, but a bit of lethargy is common to tournament consolation games. The Jeff Legue-Chris Kunitz-Derek Nesbitt line is darn impressive, but then so is Joe Tallari-Barret Ehgoetz-Jason Williamson.

Mike Brown looked a little tired in net. Ferris’ forwards are deep, although production seems to be from its top two lines. The difference may be on defense, where Ferris would seem to be a little stronger. The series will probably come down to which top line scores more and whether or not Niagara gets solid goaltending — from whomever Dave Burkholder puts on the ice. I’m expecting a Ferris sweep, but an upset win one night is always likely.

Fairfield at Alabama-Huntsville

Folks around the CHA are prone to look upon MAAC brethren with … polite disdain. Fairfield, however, not only defeated, but shut out Air Force last weekend. Before anyone thinks that this is an easy feat, one has to remember — Air Force has a potent offense, and its problem is stopping goals, not scoring them.

Alabama-Huntsville is hot, going undefeated in its last seven games and 7-1-2 since starting conference play. The Chargers also went into Sacred Heart with a bit of a swagger and came out with a tie to show for it. This team should know that Fairfield won’t be a pushover, but they should also know that they’ve beaten far better teams. I’ll pick a home sweep for the Huntsville boys.

Findlay at Western Michigan

Kevin Fines seems to be starting in net for now, and as Lance West says, “I hate to shoot at a wrong-handed goaltender. It goes against everything that you’re used to doing.” If Fines falters at any time, though, Jamie VandeSpyker has proven that he’s just as capable of shutting down a team.

Western Michigan has goalie Mike Mantua, whose goal against Ferris State excited enough media folks to deny Grady Hunt a much-deserved Defensive Player of the Week. Take that frustration, a desire to stop scaring nonconference foes and actually knock one of them off, and team that’s probably a bit frustrated with its performance last weekend, puree, and … Oilers win.

Wayne State at Air Force

The lone conference matchup of the weekend comes when Wilkinson’s Warriors sortie out to Air Force. The trip to play in the thin Rocky Mountain air is one that no CHA team likes. Wayne State was smarting coming into last weekend’s tournament, but a solid showing should give the Warriors some momentum.

Air Force was able to get things going in the second half last year. With the Warriors struggling and with the home-ice-and-air advantage, I’m going out on a limb and saying that the Falcons take some of that frustration from getting shut out at Fairfield out on their guests. Call it a split.

Findlay at Ohio State

Craig Barnett is excited that his team will get to play all of the other Division I teams in Ohio this season. The Buckeyes are the last one on his slate, but unfortunately for Findlay, are just a bit too tough. Look for the Oilers to play close but lose.

Don’t get me wrong, though; this is an up-and-coming team. “They’re undoubtedly the most-improved team in the league,” according to UAH’s West.

Enjoy the games.