2003-2004 Division III Preview

Not that anyone would bet on Division III hockey, but if they did, then the USCHO.com Preseason Poll has been more accurate than many of those 800-number betting lines.

The first edition of the poll has correctly picked the national champion in three of the past five seasons. It was incorrect in 1999 (RIT was ranked No. 1, but Middlebury won the title), and 2000 (Middlebury was picked, but Norwich came out on top). But the poll accurately predicted the NCAA tournament winners in 1998 (Middlebury), 2001 (Plattsburgh), and last season, when Norwich won its second title.

The Cadets find themselves right where they were going into last season — ranked at the top of Division III. Does that put any added pressure on Norwich?

“We haven’t minded it,” said coach Mike McShane. “It hasn’t had an affect on what we do. If you ask coaches and players anywhere, they’ll tell you that there are 10 teams out there that could win the national title.”

Being ranked is all good, according to McShane.

“There’s no pressure. (Being ranked Number One) helps with recruiting, helps give visibility to the program. It’s an honor.”

While Norwich’s place atop the poll is the same as last season, the feeling the team has going into the season is not the same.

“It does feel a little different,” said McShane. “Last season, we were on mission after losing in the (2002 title) game.

“This year, it’s a different mission, to repeat.”

Here’s a brief preview of each of the top 15 teams in Division III:

1. Norwich (27-3 last season. ECAC East champions, NCAA champions)

The defending champs look to pick up where they left off last season. Leading the charge will be All-Americans Kurtis McLean (48 points last season) and Lou DiMasi (26 points). Norwich returns eight of its top ten scorers, including Phil Aucoin (45 points), Matt Schmidt (41 points) and Paul Mattucci (38 points).

Goaltender Randy Hevey is gone, but netminders Kevin Schieve and Mike Boudreau return. Boudreau had the hot hand at the end of last season, backstopping the Cadets to the national championship.

And the rich got richer. Along with four highly touted recruits, the newest Cadet is senior Nick Cote, who transferred in from MCLA, which dropped its hockey program at the end of last season. Cote scored a whopping 33 goals last season for the Trailblazers — over a third of the team’s entire offensive production.

2. Oswego (25-7-1 last season. SUNYAC champions, lost in NCAA title game)

The Lakers find themselves where they were at the end of last season: second, behind Norwich. Like the Cadets, Oswego returns almost everyone, 20 players in all.

“We’re a very deep team,” said new coach Ed Gosek. “We lost (goaltender) Joe Loftberg and (captain) John Hurliman,” Gosek said. “But we’ve brought in five very good players, and I expect the work ethic to be there again.”

Gosek takes over the reins from George Roll, who took the head coaching job at Clarkson at the end of last season. Gosek has been an assistant at Oswego for the past 13 seasons.

“We really came together as a team last season,” he said. ” We had some very talented players, but everyone worked hard as well. Nobody complained about their role. The fourth line guys worked their butts off. Chemistry is huge, and we had it last season.”

Besides returning players like Mike Lukajic (33 goals last season) and Dan Patrick (56 points), the Lakers picked up transfer Sean Kotary from Findlay. Kotary, an NHL draft pick, has two years of eligibility left. Also in the mix will be freshman Ryan Woodward, the Player of the Year in the Ontario Provincial Jr. League last season. Recruited by most of the top Division III programs as well as many Division I teams, Woodward is expected to make an immediate impact.

3. St. Norbert (27-2-2 last season. NCHA champions, lost in NCAA semifinals)

The Green Knights advanced to the Division III Frozen Four for the first time last season, and have the ability to go at least as far again this year. Five of St. Norbert’s top seven scorers are back, including All-Americans Jason Deitsch (46 points last season) and Ryan Tew (25 points from the blue line). Sophomore forward Connor Hughes should build on a solid freshman campaign (28 points), and seniors Faron Duthie (33 points) and Mike Buchan (25 points) are poised for career seasons. Other than Tew and Jim Underwood, St. Norbert’s blueliners will be first-year players, putting pressure on returning goaltenders Chancy Colquhoun (2.21 GAA, .912 save %) and Eric Van Den Bosch (2.12 GAA .898 save %).

4. Middlebury (22-5-2 last season. Lost in NESCAC championship game, lost in NCAA semifinals)

Last season was successful by most team’s standards, but not the Panthers’. For just the second time in eight years, Middlebury failed to win either a NESCAC or NCAA title. Bill Beaney returns from a year long sabbatical for his 17th season behind the bench, and he’ll see several familiar faces, including senior Kevin Cooper, last season’s NESCAC Player of the Year and first-team All-American (41 points last season). In all, Middlebury returns 16 of their 17 top scorers, as well as both goaltenders, Yen-I Chen (2.29 GAA, .905 save %) and Marc Scheuer (1.59 GAA, .896 save %).

5. Wisconsin-River Falls (23-7-1 last season. Lost in NCHA semifinals, lost in NCAA quarterfinals)

The Falcons are another team with a young defense and a veteran offense. UWRF returns seven of its eight top scorers from an offense that was tops in the NCHA last season, including senior forwards Jim Murphy (37 points last season), Matt Elsen (34 points) and Jamie Steinert (28 points).

“With the forwards we have, we’re going to be an explosive team,” coach Steve Freeman said. “As the season goes on, we’re going to keep getting better, especially on defense.”

The biggest loss for the Falcons is all-star goalie Jacque Vezina, who sported a 1.99 GAA and .923 save percentage last season. Expect the load to be carried this year by sophomore Dan Meneghin, who appeared in 14 games last year and finished with a 1.72 goals against average and a .929 save percentage.

6. Wisconsin-Superior (21-6-2 last season. Lost in NCHA finals)

The 2002 national champions were shut out of the NCAA tournament last season for just the second time in ten years. The goal for the Yellowjackets is simple: do better against St. Norbert, which was 4-0-1 against UWS last year.

It will be a difficult task for coach Dan Stauber in light of what his team lost to graduation: nine impact players including three All-Americans, forward Colin Kendall, defenseman Steve Rodberg, and goaltender Nate Ziemski. Expected to pick up the slack is a talented group of juniors, and a strong recruiting class.

“We have a good core of guys coming back that are in that junior class, just like we did two years ago when we won it,” said Stauber. “Those juniors need to play like that junior class did.

“They have big shoes to fill, especially with a young team. We will count on everyone, including the freshmen, to step up and make it back to the NCAA Tournament.”

7. RIT (19-4-2 last season. Lost in the ECAC West finals)

Like Wisconsin-Superior, the Tigers had a rare premature end to their season in 2002-2003, missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in eight years. And also like UWS, RIT lost a large group of seniors, including leading scorer Mike Bournazakis and four-year starting goaltender Tyler Euverman. Key for the Tigers will be the play of senior Mike Tarantino, who got off to a slow start last season but finished strong (42 points). Sophomore George Eliopolous will shoulder much of the goaltending duties, and RIT returns its entire defensive corps, led by seniors Ryan Franke and Ryan Fairbarn. A large group of freshman forwards will support Tarantino and sophomore Darren Doherty (22 points).

8. Elmira (18-8-2 last season. ECAC West Champion, lost in NCAA quarterfinals)

Picked to finish behind RIT in the USCHO poll, the Soaring Eagles were the choice to finish first in the ECAC West by the league’s coaches in their preseason poll. Coming off its first NCAA appearance in four years, Elmira will miss the leadership of Mike Clarke and the point production of Jason Silverthorn, both departed. But for the most part, the Soaring Eagles were a young team last season, and have only three seniors on the roster this time. Expect Pierre Rivard to have another big year (44 points last season) and goaltender Greg Fargo to improve on his 3.67 GAA and .899 save percentage.

9. Plattsburgh (20-9-3 last season. Lost in SUNYAC finals)

The Cardinals were another team unaccustomed to missing the NCAA tournament, and Plattsburgh will face the unusual task of being an underdog in the SUNYAC. The Cardinals lost six players from last season, including All-Americans Brendon Hodge, Peter Ollari, and Jason Kilcan.

“We have a different look this season,” said coach Bob Emery, who also lost his long-time assistant, Kevin Houle, who left to coach the Plattsburgh women’s team. “We’re more balanced. We don’t have any superstars, but we have better chemistry than last year and everyone works hard.”

Chad Kemp is the team’s leading returning scorer (33 points last season) and Rob Retter also returns after finishing third on the team in goals last year. Also back is the goaltending tandem of Craig Nelson (2.50 GAA) and Tony Seariac (3.22 GAA). They’ll be joined by MCLA transfer Jason Vasco, who played almost 1,200 minutes for the Trailblazers last season.

10. Trinity (19-6-2 last season. NESCAC champions. Lost in NCAA quarterfinals)

The Bantams look to overcome a tragic end to their most successful season ever. After upsetting Middlebury in the NESCAC title game, Trinity blew a three-goal lead in the third period against Norwich in the NCAA quarterfinals. Trinity lost just two regulars to graduation, and will again rely on All-American goaltender Doug Kisielius, who was among the nation’s leaders in minutes played (1,553) and save percentage (.912). He’ll be joined by a squad of blueliners that returns intact from last season, led by senior captain Tim Joncas (21 points last season). Also back are forwards Joe Ori, Jeff Natale and Ryan Stevens, who combined for almost 100 points last season.

11. Manhattanville (18-6-2 last season. Lost in ECAC West semifinals)

Expectations are high for the Valiants, who return 19 players and have made significant additions to a squad that challenged for the league title last year. Leading scorer Chris Siefert is gone, but back are all-star goaltender Jay Chrapala (2.22 GAA, .922 save %) and league Rookie of the Year Tyler Resch (30 points). They’ll be joined by senior captain Dave Schmalenberg and four transfers from Division I Iona, which eliminated its program at the end of last season.

“From a talent and experience standpoint, this team is by far our best team ever,” said coach Keith Levinthal. “As to how well we do, that will depend on how hard we work and how well we play as a team”.

12. St. John’s (20-7-1 last season. MIAC champions, lost in the NCAA preliminary round)

The MIAC will be another dogfight this season, but don’t be surprised if the Johnnies come out on top again. They may have overachieved last season with a freshman-led team, and another year under their belts should make this squad even better. The trio of Ryan Langenbrunner, Scott Bjorkuld and Darrly Smoleroff combined for a whopping 87 points as freshman. In all, St. John’s returns the top six and eight of ten top scorers.

The major loss for the Johnnies is All-American netminder Rick Gregory, who played in all but three games last season. Juniors Aaron Bulman and Chris Gornick are expected to battle for the starting job.

13. New England College (20-6 last season. Lost in ECAC East championship game)

The Pilgrims again look to emerge from the large shadow cast by Norwich in the ECAC East. Successful three seasons ago, NEC might not be able to catch the Cadets, but should contend for an at-large NCAA berth. Coach Tom Carroll, now in his second season behind the bench, will rely on 50-point scorer Travis Banga to go out with a bang in his senior campaign. Losing just two players from last year’s squad, the Pilgrims return all but one member of their defensive corps and all three goaltenders from last season.

14. St. Thomas (16-9-2 least season. Lost in MIAC championship game)

The Tommies will move into a new facility this season, but expect their winning tradition to continue. After 28 seasons in the Fairgrounds Coliseum, St. Thomas will move into the soon-to-be-completed Mendota Heights facility after the first of the year.

The look of the Tommies will be different as well, as head coach Terry Skrypek, entering his 17th season, has to replace 10 players from last year’s squad.

Back are two all-stars: goaltender Zach Sikich (1.90 GAA, .930 save %) and forward Dustin Lick (31 points). Five blueliners return, along with five of the top six scorers from last year.

15. Wentworth (21-5-3 last season. ECAC Northeast champion, lost in NCAA quarterfinals)

The Leopards emerge as the clear favorites in the ECAC Northeast this season. Pushed in past years by Lebanon Valley and Johnson and Wales, Wentworth returns essentially intact from last year, while its competition suffered significant losses.

Curry could emerge to challenge the Leopards, but it will be a daunting task, as Wentworth brings back high-scoring forward Alex Marinkovich (53 points last season) and goaltender Raj Bangoo (2.38 GAA, .922 save %).