This Week in Division III: Oct. 28, 2004

When we left off, I was running down the USCHO Division III Preseason Poll. Numbers one through eight were covered last week, so here’s the rest of the top 15, plus a couple of teams who didn’t make the poll that you should watch out for.

9. Oswego
Poll: 87 Points
Last Season: 19-9-3; tied for second in the SUNYAC; lost in SUNYAC
finals to Plattsburgh.
First Game: Saturday, Oct. 16 vs. Waterloo (exhibition)

Last season was supposed to belong to the Lakers. Returning most key players and picked second in the preseason poll in 2003-2004, Oswego opened the season 9-0-3 but then went just 10-9 the rest of the way, falling short of its goal of a rematch with Norwich in the NCAA championship.

The Lakers suffered three big losses to graduation — forward Mike Lukajic (144 career points), All-American defenseman Joe Carrabs (82 career points) and goaltender Tyson Gajda (played in all but three games last season).

That’s the bad news. The good news is that All-American Don Patrick (106 points in two seasons) is back for his senior campaign, along with forward Ryan Woodward (38 points last season), Andy Rozak (32 points) and Sean Kotary (22 points), who may have finally found a home after playing for three teams in three seasons.

Oswego returns five defensemen including Mark Strzoda (21 points last year) and brought in two new goaltenders to compliment Brett Leonhardt, who is expected to get the bulk of the early starts. At 6′-7″, Leonhardt is a formidable presence in net.

Picked to finish second in the SUNYAC pre-season poll, expect the Lakers and Plattsburgh to battle it out all season.

10. Wisconsin-Superior
Poll: 68 points
Last Season: 15-8-4; third place in the NCHA; lost in the NCHA quarterfinals to Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
First Game: Friday, Nov. 5 at St. Olaf

2003-2004 was not a typical season for the Yellowjackets, who failed to reach the NCHA semifinals for the first time in 12 years and became only the second NCHA team ever to lose a first-round playoff series at home.

“Last year was a tough year for everyone involved with the program,” said coach Dan Stauber. “But it’s over. We’re not worrying about what we didn’t do last year anymore. We’re focused solely on what we’re going to do this year.”

Superior certainly has the talent to make a quick return to prominence. A large group of seniors can provide leadership as well as points, including All-American Dale Lupul and forwards Yann Poirier (32 points last season) and Randall Smisko (28 points).

“I’ve said many times that I’m a coach that leans heavily on my seniors, and this year will be no different,” Stauber said. “This group has won a lot, but they still feel like they have something to prove to people, so I look for them to be very intense and have a very good year.”

Superior doesn’t have much to prove to the voters in USCHO’s preseason poll, which ranked the ‘Jackets tenth despite them falling out of the poll at the end of last season.

“Actually, I’m kind of surprised by it,” said Stauber of Superior’s preseason ranking. “We didn’t play all that well at the end of the year last year, and usually people remember that in the polls. But this seems like they’ve maybe forgotten about that a little bit. I think to most people we’re a mystery. They know we’re a talented team, but don’t know how we’re going to come out and perform.

“But in the end, it’s just a poll. It’s great fodder for people to debate on message boards and such. The ranking that really matters is where we finish in the NCHA and where the NCAA committee ranks us in the west,” Stauber said.

Another believer is St. Norbert coach Tim Coghlin. Superior was one of only two teams that defeated the Green Knights in regular season play last year.

“I think Superior will be very tough,” he said. “The way last season ended for them has to leave a bitter taste. They underachieved last season. They’re exceptionally good.”

11. St. Thomas
Poll: 67 points
Last Season: 17-8-3; finished second in the MIAC regular season; MIAC playoff champions; lost to Wisconsin-River Falls in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
First Game: Friday, Nov. 5 vs. St. Norbert

Several coaches have mentioned St. Thomas as one of the “teams to beat” in the West this season, and I can see why. The Tommies lost only three players to graduation, and those seniors accounted for just three of the 106 goals scored by St. Thomas last season.

Bolstered by a recruiting class of highly-touted junior players and a couple of transfers, including Brady Fougner, who scored 43 points in two seasons at Augsburg, the main challenge for coach Terry Skrypek is going to be keeping everyone happy.

“We’re going to have to cut some players who were with us last season,” he said. “That’s a tough thing to do, but we’re going to have a better team than we did last year.

“We lost only three seniors, two of whom played. We have a good group of junior players coming in, plus some transfers. It’s just one of those recruiting years where everything came together.”

The long list of players coming back include seniors Dustin Lick (an All-American who tallied 41 points last season) and Anthony Blumer (35 points). A pair of juniors, Brandon Wilcox (37 points) and Dan Krmpotich (30 points) are also expected to make major contributions.

In net, expect senior Zach Sikich to again be the mainstay that he was last season, appearing in 27 of 28 games, accumulating a 2.76 GAA and a .904 save percentage.

Everything is in place for a big season at St. Thomas, including the schedule. “We have 17 home games this season,” said Skrypek. “That’s another advantage.”

12. Hobart
Poll: 61 points
Last Season: 15-8-5; ECAC West regular season and tournament champions; lost to Norwich in the NCAA quarterfinals.
First Game: Friday, Oct. 29 vs. Fredonia

All eyes will be on the Statesmen this season, as they come off their most successful campaign in school history, winning their first ever ECAC West title and making their first appearance in the NCAA tournament.

No longer a doormat for traditional powerhouses Elmira and RIT, Hobart went 4-1 against them and rode a 10-1 stretch at the end of the season to the title.

What do you do for an encore? Well, when you have virtually your entire team back, you do it again. At least that’s what the ECAC West coaches think, picking the Statesmen to repeat as ECAC West champs.

Ninety percent of the offense is back, including senior captains Craig Levey (a team-leading 34 points last season) and Steve Mitacek (14 points from the blueline), as well as assistant captain Jesse Desper (11 points).

The main man will again be goaltender Adam Lavelle. Last season, as other ECAC West teams experienced less than stellar outings by their netminders down the stretch, Lavelle put together a hot streak that was the difference. Named to the All-American second team at the end of last season, Lavelle played in 24 of 28 games and should expect to see at least that amount of work this season.

13. Lake Forest
Poll: 57 points
Last Season: 18-6-4; finished fourth in the NCHA; lost to St. Norbert in the NCHA semifinals
First Game: Friday, Oct. 29 at MSOE

Like Hobart, Lake Forest had a breakthrough season, winning its first-ever playoff series and making it to the league semifinals for the first time. The Foresters were ranked as high as fourth in the USCHO poll last season, their highest rating ever.

Lake Forest started off as hot as you can get — they opened 11-0-1 and didn’t lose until January 9. But the Foresters cooled off after that, going 7-6-3 the rest of the way, with a season-ending loss to St. Norbert in the NCHA semifinals.

The key for Lake Forest this season, as it was last season, is team defense. Goaltender Joel Cameron is back after leading all over Division III in save percentage last season (.944). Six of seven blueliners return, looking to match or improve a team defense that allowed just 2.22 goals per game in 2003-2004.

Seven of the top ten scorers from last season are back, including sophomore Tyler Canal, who led the team with 31 points and tied for first in goals (14) with senior Robin Charest. Four other returning veterans had at least 20 points, including new captain Tyler Steen with 24.

Lake Forest ended last season in eighth position in the final USCHO poll, but begins this season ranked 13th despite returning most key players.

“Lake Forest got shortchanged,” said Wisconsin-Superior coach Dan Stauber. “They’re better than 13th. I would actually place them ahead of us, based on what they did against us last year.”

“Lake Forest will be tough — they showed that last season,” said St. Norbert coach Tim Coghlin. “There’s four or five teams that can win this league and Lake Forest is certainly one of them.”

14. New England College
Poll: 49 points
Last Season: 19-6-2; finished second in the ECAC East; lost to Babson in the ECAC East semifinals
First Game: Friday, Nov. 19 vs. Bowdoin

For the past few seasons, New England College has been the main threat to Norwich’s dominance in the ECAC East, and this year will be no different. The Pilgrims, coming off 20-6 and 19-6-2 seasons under coach Tom Carroll may be at least as good again in 2004-2005.

The Pilgrims lost their main offensive threat for the past two seasons, Travis Banga. Banga had 101 points his last two seasons, including 51 his senior year, when he was a first team All-American.

The good news is that most of NEC’s other offensive weapons are back, including Finnish native Jaakko Kolari, who racked up 39 points last season, tops in the nation for a freshman. Also expected to pick up where they left off are junior Jeremy Koning (39 points last season), junior Jeff VanDyke (33 points) and senior Andy Wallace (25 points).

Mainstay Michael Shimek is back for his final season in net. The senior has played in 48 games his past two seasons, and compiled a 2.37 GAA last year, including three shutouts.

Barely missing out on an NCAA bid last season, New England College will be back in the hunt this year. Game to watch: Feb. 12, when Norwich visits the Pilgrims at Lee Clement Arena.

15. Trinity
Poll:43 points
Last Season: 16-9-1; finished second in the NESCAC; lost to Middlebury in the NESCAC championship game
First Game: Friday, Nov. 19 vs. Southern Maine.

The Bantams have made the NESCAC championship game each time for the last three seasons, coming away with the title in 2003. Like New England College, Trinity has been the second-best team in its league — in this case behind mighty Middlebury.

Trinity will again be backstopped by Doug Kiselius this year, a legitimate All-American candidate. Kiselius was named to the All-American squad in 2003, but was inexplicably left off last season, even though his stats (2.56 GAA, .911 save pct.) were virtually identical and his team relied on him at least as much.

Also back are NESCAC all-stars Joe Ori (led the team in scoring last season with 29 points) and defenseman Brendan Timmins (26 points).

John Dunham, in his 31st season at Trinity, likes what he sees.

“This year’s team is an experienced group led by three outstanding seniors,” he said. “Joe Ori and Doug Kisielius are both two-time All-NESCAC and All-New England First-Team All Stars and Ryan Stevens is our best goal scorer.”

Dunham says it’s all about intensity for his squad.

“If the team approaches the season with a sense of urgency, we will have an opportunity to compete for the NESCAC Championship and an NCAA Tournament berth.”

Other teams to watch:

Manhattanville — The Valiants barely missed making the preseason poll, but they may soon find themselves in the top 15, especially after an impressive sweep of the US National Under-18 team last weekend. Manhattanville returns 11 of its top 12 scorers and a strong defense that includes all-leaguers Chad Van Diemen and Galloway Carroll. The Valiants look to continue their dominance at Playland Ice Casino, where they’re 16-2-2 since moving into the facility two years ago.

Utica — Picked to finish out of the playoff picture in the ECAC West preseason poll (the league allows a stingy four teams into the postseason) the Pioneers still were mentioned on a number of USCHO preseason poll ballots. This could be “the year” for Utica as the inaugural class of 13 players reaches their senior season. The top scoring line in Division III (Jimmy Sokol, John Ames, Ryan Webb) returns intact. If Utica can get decent goaltending, watch out.

Wisconsin-Stevens Point — We’ve already mentioned four NCHA teams, but there’s room for one more. Another experienced team that includes five seniors at the forward position, Point’s in the same boat as Utica — too many good teams ahead of it. Still, there’s too many good players (Adam Kostishka, Ryan Kirchhoff, Mike Brolsma) to count them out.

Gustavus Adolphus — While the MIAC is expected to be a two-team race between St. Thomas and St. John’s, Gustavus may have something to say as well. “Gustavus was as good as any team we played last season, and they’ll be strong again this year,” said St. Norbert coach Tim Coghlin. Nine of the team’s top scorers return as does four-year starter Dan Melde in net.

Joy in Mudville

I’m sure all of the USCHO columnists (especially Boston natives Dave Hendrickson and Jim Connelly and lifelong fan Paula Weston) will not let the opportunity pass to say something about the extraordinary eleven days had by the Red Sox and their fans. Of all the wonderful pieces written about the Sox this week, I’ve had the most fun reading Bill Simmons. Check him out.

I’m not a Red Sox fan (I grew up idolizing the Big Red Machine, so 1975, another in a long line of frustrations in Beantown, was a good year for me), but I’m a baseball fan, and for that reason, I had goose bumps on Wednesday night and on Thursday, listening to grown men call sports talk shows and weep.

Congratulations, Red Sox Nation.

Read Part I of Chris Lerch’s top 15 preview.