Learning How to Win
Nearing the home stretch of the season, some Cinderellas have heard the stroke of midnight and have fallen by the wayside. A few are still partying.
At Geneseo, the Knights are unbeaten in their last nine games, good enough for a No. 14 ranking in the latest USCHO.com Division III poll. It’s the first time since the 1996-97 season that Geneseo has been ranked. The Knights are 11-4-3 overall, 5-2-1 in conference, good enough for sole possession of second place in the SUNYAC.
“It’s a big step for us,” said head coach Brian Hills of the national ranking. “People haven’t thought much about Geneseo the past few years, so it’s good to be noticed.”
Hills, in his third year at the helm, has a young team that’s growing up quickly.
“We’ve played pretty well against the top teams,” he said. “We’re learning how to win; that’s our motto this season.”
Geneseo has played eight games against teams that have been ranked this season, and is a respectable 3-3-2 in those games. The Knights are 7-0-2 in their last nine games, including dramatic third-period comebacks against Hobart and RIT.
Against Hobart Jan. 13, Geneseo pulled its goalie and scored twice in the last 40 seconds to earn a 4-4 tie. At RIT ten days later, Geneseo scored with just two seconds to play on a six-on-four to get another 4-4 tie.
“We’ve faced adversity and come back,” said Hills. “We’re gaining some confidence.”
Junior goaltender Brett Walker is a major reason for the Knights’ success. His .906 overall save percentage is tops among SUNYAC goalies. Known for his volatility, Walker has just two minutes in penalties this season, compared to 22 last season, and 55 his freshman campaign.
“It’s been blown out of proportion,” said Hills. “Not that he hasn’t had some incidents, but I think he’s really matured. He’s much more focused this season.
“We had a powwow early in the season when I thought his attitude wasn’t where I thought it should be. Practices weren’t going well. We talked about the importance of him being a leader, which he is — the guys look to him that way.”
A focused goaltender is a good goaltender, according to Hills.
“In our eyes, he’s one of the elite goaltenders (in Division III). He gives us a chance to win every game.”
On the offensive side, balance has been the key. “Look at our stats,” said Hills. “We don’t have to rely on one or two guys; we’ve got three lines that can do it.”
The Knights host Oswego this Friday in a battle for second place. The winner will stay within striking distance of frontrunner Plattsburgh. Then Cortland comes in on Saturday for the second game of a big four-game homestand over the next two weeks.
“This will be a big weekend for us,” said Hills. “We’re trying to build an atmosphere at Geneseo and having a ranked team come in, having both teams ranked, will be a big deal.”
Hanging in There
Another Cinderella still at the dance is Wisconsin-Eau Claire, which continues to impress 19 games into the season. In head coach Jean LaForest’s first year, last season, UWEC was 1-22-1. This season the Blugolds got off to a 10-1 start and are still in the thick of things at 13-5-1.
UWEC fell out of the poll this week, a single point behind Wisconsin-Superior for the 15th and final position.
“I told my players that we are greedy now, we want to stay in,” said LaForest. “You don’t focus on (the poll) every day, but it’s a concrete reflection on where you stand.”
Being ranked in the second half of the season is a long way from 1-22-1.
“It’s not by accident,” said LaForest. “It’s by design, although I admit that if you asked me at the end of last season if we would be where we are now, I wouldn’t have thought so.
“But it’s good to be ahead of schedule.”
Reasons for the quick turnaround?
“We brought in Jeff Pradel as an assistant and he’s done a great job working with the defense,” said LaForest. “Also, the quality of the athletes we’ve been bringing in is better.”
His young team is enjoying the ride, and the challenge, according to LaForest.
“We want to push it and see where we fall in terms of the rest of the NCHA. There are no easy wins here. (Wisconsin-)Stout is much, much better this year. St. Scholastica is making improvements. On any given night, you can take points away from teams above you in the standings.”
Things began to turn around immediately. Eau Claire opened the season with a 5-3 against Wisconsin-Stevens Point. “Even though it was a non-conference game, it was very big for us,” said LaForest. “It showed that the adjustments that we had made would work.”
Another watershed moment was a 5-2 win against St. Mary’s a few weeks later.
“St. Mary’s a team that had beaten us pretty good (6-2) last season,” recalled LaForest. “This time we were behind 2-1 after the first period, but wound up winning 5-2. That made believers out of a lot of people.”
When UWEC went into a mini-slump in December, dropping three straight, it looked like the joyride might be over. But a 6-4 win against Wisconsin-Superior on Jan. 16 righted the ship.
“People were surprised at that one, but obviously we were pretty pleased,” said LaForest. “It’s been eight years since we’re beaten them.”
Last weekend, The Blugolds lost to St. Norbert and tied Lake Forest. The same two teams are on the schedule this weekend.
“We’re looking forward to it,” said LaForest of the rematch. “We get to go right back at them, right away. The schedule couldn’t be better.”
And it isn’t even close to midnight.
1. St. Norbert — Outscoring the opposition 110-34.
2. Norwich — Tops in both offense and defense in Division III.
3. Middlebury — Beat up on two ranked teams (New England and Plattsburgh) by a combined score of 15-2.
4. Wisconsin-River Falls — Still within striking distance (three points) of St. Norbert.
5. New England College — Lost big to Middlebury, but just three losses on the season.
6. St. John’s — Another team with just three losses.
7. Manhattanville — Has played just four games in three weeks; off until Feb. 3.
8. Plattsburgh — Coming off a big loss, it’s just conference games the rest of way.
9. RIT — Just one loss in its last nine games.
10. Lake Forest — Just 2-4-1 in its last seven after an 11-0-1 start.
11. Oswego — Another slumping team, just 1-5 in its last six.
12. St. Thomas — Five-point lead in the MIAC
13. Curry — The class of the ECAC Northeast proved it with a big win over Wentworth.
14. Wisconsin-Stevens Point — No votes in the poll, but I like the Pointers to finish strong.
15. Geneseo — Learning how to win.