This Week in the CHA: March 4, 2004

Congratulations to Bemidji State on winning the CHA championship. But forgive this columnist if the ecomium feels premature.

The CHA schedule-makers had performed a feat of almost sublime beauty. Scheduling the preseason favorites, Bemidji and Niagara, to face each other on the final weekend, they manipulated events to maximize the probability of a dramatic showdown next week.

The plan reached the cusp of fruition when with two weeks two go, the Purple Eagles trailed the Beavers by just one point. The only problem was that Niagara had to take one game from Findlay, at home, and the Oilers had a lot more on the line than first place.

For the Oilers, there is no next year, no building for the future. Any opportunity to etch their program name in CHA lore has to happen now and they did what was, if not unthinkable, then at least improbable — they went to Niagara and took two. Bemidji did the same at Air Force, and voila, new champions.

And no dramatic showdown.

“I thought for sure we would be playing Niagara next week for the title,” said Bemidji coach Tom Serratore. “There was no question in my mind.”

The Oilers had one of those magical weekends when almost every shot off their sticks found the back of the net. They took 35 shots and scored 14 times. Neither goaltender Jeff VanNyatten nor Rob Bonk had any answer, especially senior Brian Sherry, who claimed the USCHO/ITECH Offensive Player of the Week Award with a four-goal, two-assist performance.

Niagara still earned a bye for the first round of the CHA tournament, but in its quest for the top seed has to look at the Oilers, who despite all the emotion of the season, are still 9-20-2. Findlay took three of the four games of the season series from the Purple Eagles.

The first of Findlay’s wins over Niagara was understandable, coming in the team’s first home game after the announcement that the varsity program would be terminated upon the season’s conclusion. But Niagara had to find a way to win one at home with a trip to Bemidji for the championship on the line.

Instead, Bemidji knew by the end of the first period on Saturday that all it had to do was protect the 2-0 lead it had developed at Air Force. It did, cruising to a 9-1 victory.

“With the two-hour difference in time, we knew that Findlay was winning 6-2 after two periods,” Serratore said. “We definitely went into the rest of the game knowing that we had the title.”

Niagara coach Dave Burkholder took consolation of the fact that it could still claim the NCAA autobid by winning the conference championship. Serratore knows that his team really hasn’t won much yet.

“The celebration was pretty mellow,” Serratore said. “There was some excitement, we talked about how we won the marathon … It doesn’t matter unless you win the playoff championship. It’s an end to phase one of the season; phase two begins next week.”

The Purple Eagles will want to tell the Beavers that they still have a dogfight on their hands, and will face a challenge if the two top seeds meet a week from Saturday in Kearney, Neb.

Bemidji still has goals in mind as well.

“You want to win every game you can,” Serratore said. “You want to be playing your best hockey going into the playoffs. We also have 18 wins, and one of our goals was to win 20. We can do that next week.”

Nonetheless, you can thank Findlay for the fact that all we have next week is a message game. That’s why they’re called “spoilers.”

Bemidji Comes Full Circle

Four years ago, Tom Serratore gazed out at the Bemidji locker room to the almost dozen freshmen sitting nearby and made them a promise.

You will win a championship for this school.

It must have been a tough sell. The Beavers wandered that year to a 4-26-4 record. Not until the 12th game of the season did Bemidji net its first win — and it took another 16 before the program tasted victory again.

Now those freshmen-turned-seniors have metamorphosed four wins into 18 and fulfilled the pledge their coach made.

“Those guys were there when we got our noses bloodied,” Serratore said. “We told them it was going to get better and now it has come to fruition. There’s nothing more gratifying than to see them win.”

The tale of Bemidji as a small-college dynasty is well known, with 13 national championships. But this is the first title of any kind for the program since its elevation to Division I status.

“Our seniors have been pretty resilient for us,” Serratore said. “Each year they saw the program get better and better. They helped shape the program … They are the true pioneers for our program.”

The respect Serratore has for his veteran group removes any concern that the Beavers will ease up this weekend on the Purple Eagles. In addition to reaching the aforementioned goal of 20 wins, Saturday night will also be Senior Night, and it does not seem fitting for the Beavers to lose an evening for a class that has made such contributions to the program.

“All the seniors are going to play,” Serratore said. “We know of only one way to play. We are trained to go in and work hard and smart. We have that mentality.”

Of course, now the Beavers have a higher goal in mind and that is to make the NCAA tournament. They will enter the CHA tournament as both the top seed and the favorite to win the championship.

That will be the ultimate test for this group, who have passed everything else thus far.

Wayne State????

The Oilers proved emphatically that their program is not over. Findlay has had a few moments in the sun this year — the Oilers have defeated ranked opponents and three times an Oiler has won an USCHO/ITECH Player of the Week.

But even more encouraging for the CHA tournament is that Wayne State showed that is has plenty of fight left in it — literally.

The Warriors were led by goaltender Matt Kelly, who stopped 80 Alabama-Huntsville shots to lead his team to a sweep of the Chargers, snapping a 10-game winless streak.

But even more than the saves total, the stat that jumped off the box score is the penalties — as in 187, the combined minutes meted out on Sunday in WSU’s 4-1 victory. Twelve misconduct penalties were issued, as well as a game disqualification to the Chargers’ Keith Rowe, which came after he was tagged for a major for crosschecking.

Before the week, Warrior coach Bill Wilkinson talked about playing hockey that was ugly at times and doing the little things necessary to get wins in the playoffs. He probably didn’t mean this type of hockey ugly.

If the season were to end today, Alabama-Huntsville and Wayne State would meet in the first round. There’s not enough time for tempers to calm down this fast.

Quick Things to Look For This Weekend

  • Can Niagara bounce back? The Purple Eagles may have a lock on second place, but if the Beavers sweep, Niagara will be limping into the playoffs.
  • Findlay’s last home games as a program. Expect Pat Ford’s team to go out with the class it’s shown all year.
  • Air Force-WSU: Instead of a battle for first place, we have a battle for last. With the sweep, the Warriors moved into a tie with the Falcons for fifth place. Air Force had the shot to play spoiler, facing Niagara and Bemidji back-to-back, and got steamrolled. Look for a tough series in Michigan with all-important momentum on the line.

    And Lastly

    The bells will peal louder next week, but it’s playoff time. Rejoice. This is the reason why hockey exists.