From Freshman Team To 400
Bill Wilkinson’s coaching career began humbly with his alma mater, St. Lawrence, more than three decades ago.
“When I started out, I was a freshman coach, I wasn’t even an assistant on the varsity,” said Wilkinson. “So I wasn’t really looking at anything other than developing a good team at that stage.”
He’s come a long way since those humble beginnings. Wilkinson picked up career win 399 when his Wayne State Warriors downed Providence, 4-1, on November 5. He can become just the 23rd coach in college coaching history to record win number 400 with a victory against CHA newcomer Robert Morris this weekend.
“Hopefully 400 can go by very quickly. I don’t want to be stuck on  for a long time,” Wilkinson chuckled. “It’s a milestone for a coach’s career. It’s certainly an accomplishment.”
Wilkinson served apprenticeships at St. Lawrence, North Dakota and Bowling Green before landing his first head coaching job with Western Michigan in 1982-83. He earned the first of three CCHA Coach of the Year awards in just his second season behind the Broncos bench, doubling the team’s win total from 11 to 22 in the course of a year. And two years later WMU posted a 32-12-0 mark, the best record in school history.
Despite that impressive record, Wilkinson’s team finished second in the CCHA to mighty Michigan State during the regular season. The Broncos got some satisfaction in knocking off the eventual NCAA champs in postseason play, recording a 3-1 victory that Wilkinson puts near the top of his all-time list.
“Probably one of the premier wins was beating Michigan State at Joe Louis for the CCHA championship back in 1986,” he recalled. “We ended up going onto the NCAAs and losing to Harvard in the regionals, just two games away from getting to the Frozen Four. That was a great win.”
A great win yes, but hardly the only impressive victory on Wilkinson’s resume. Another memorable victory came against the in-state rivals from Ann Arbor in 1988.
The Broncos and Wolverines faced off in a best-of-three playoff series after finishing second and third in the league, respectively. Michigan took the opener by a 5-4 score, and WMU followed up with a 4-3 victory in the second game.
The rubber match wasn’t nearly as close.
“The craziest victory was our 10-0 win at home against Michigan in the playoffs,” Wilkinson recalled. “It might have been [Michigan coach Red Berenson’s] first or second year at Michigan, and that was just the craziest game I’ve ever been involved in.
“Everything we shot went in the net, and it wasn’t the type of a game that was one-sided. Each game before, each team won by a goal. For us to beat them 10-0 was the craziest game. I don’t think too many teams can say they beat Red’s team 10-0.”
As for more recent highlights, Wilkinson can look to three straight CHA postseason titles and a trip to the 2003 NCAA tournament with the Warriors. And while those games undoubtedly hold significance for everyone involved with the Wayne State program, there was one from early on in the team’s history that means just as much to Wilkinson.
“Our freshman year here, the last game of the year we ended up beating Clarkson at Clarkson,” he beamed. “Being a St. Lawrence grad, that was pretty good. It might not have meant too much to our players, but it sure as heck meant a lot to myself as a coach.”
Wilkinson claims there’s no secret to his success other than longevity. (“You just kind of scrape away and hang around. It’s like a goal scorer. You keep hanging around the net and you’re going to get one or two”). But his counterpart this weekend sees it differently.
Robert Morris head coach Derek Schooley played for Wilkinson at Western Michigan, and said his former coach’s honesty and integrity make players want to do right by him.
“One of the things that I learned from Bill Wilkinson was how he treated me as a player,” said Schooley. “He was very truthful, and for that I’m very loyal to him. What he told me, he kept his word. I can’t say enough things about him. He’s and excellent person and he cares about his players.”
Schooley isn’t the first player-turned-coach that Wilkinson has faced off against. In fact he won’t even be the only one on the weekend, as current Robert Morris assistant Marc Fakler was a member of Wilkinson’s 1998-99 Western Michigan squad, and served two years as an assistant at Wayne State. But Wilkinson’s influence stretches further than that.
“There’s been some guys that have been around,” he said. “Steve Cady was at Miami for years when I was at Bowling Green as an assistant, he played for me at St. Lawrence. Wayne Wilson at RIT, we played his team. I coached Wayne at Bowling Green.”
And while it’s always nice to renew acquaintances with his former skaters, Wilkinson puts personal feelings aside once the game starts.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Derek and Marc Fakler,” he said. “I’ll wish them good luck after the series. Once that puck’s dropped, it’s all business on both sides, I’m sure.”
The Task At Hand
Wayne State opens its CHA season at Robert Morris this weekend, a fact which Wilkinson puts more importance on than personal milestones.
“You can’t take games back, that’s the key here,” he said. “You have to win the games you’re supposed to win, and maybe steal a few you’re not supposed to win.
“These games here, there’s no reason we shouldn’t win them. But you’ve got a team that’s going to scrap and fight and chew and claw against us. I know Derek’s team will be extremely excited to play us. It’s on their home turf and they’re not going to want to give up any points at home. So it will be a battle royal, and I hope our kids are not looking past them, because when you do that’s when you get burnt.”
Youth Gone Wild
Last year the Warrior work horses were freshmen Nate Higgins and Jason Baclig, who finished first and second in team scoring with 23 and 22 points respectively. And the trend of fresh faces helping out on offense seems to be continuing this season.
Rookies Stavros Paskaris and Tylor Michel currently lead all Wayne State scorers with eight points apiece. The ability to count on the newcomers for offensive support has been an unexpected surprise for Wilkinson.
“I didn’t know where we would shake down. I thought Baclig and Higgins, two guys that led us last year, would be probably leading the parade again, and then maybe [sophomore Jason Bloomingburg],” he said. “I didn’t think the two freshmen would be leading us at this point. But they’re only a point ahead of a couple guys, and it’s spread out, which we like to see. The team has a little bit more depth than we had last year.”
Michel opened his college career with a two assist effort against Clarkson on Oct. 16, and went on to record four points, including two shorthanded goals, in his next four games. He had his scoring streak snapped on Halloween against Canisius, but rebounded with a second two assist outing against Providence last weekend.
Paskaris has been consistent as well. He netted his first collegiate goal in his first game, then was held scoreless against Clarkson the following night in a 5-3 loss. Since then he has put together a six-game scoring streak which includes seven points (3-4).
“Stav’s a junkyard dog type of player. He comes in there very heady, grinds it out, sticks his nose in,” Wilkinson said of the Dearborn native. “A smart, smart player with the puck. He’s not going to beat you with great speed, he’s just going to be tenacious. He gets close to the net and he’s got pretty good sense around it.”
Not surprisingly, the majority of the Warriors’ goal scoring has come from underclassmen, with freshmen and sophomores combining for 82% of the team’s goal total (23 of 28).
Wayne State has just two upperclassmen skating up front in junior John May and senior John Grubb. May has three goals on the season, while junior defender Steve Kovalchik has recorded two.
Van Nynatten Not In Net
Jeff Van Nynatten was among the top netminders in the CHA last season, posting a league high 18 wins and earning the MVP award in the conference tournament. His selection to the preseason All-CHA squad was a virtual foregone conclusion.
But after Van Nynatten surrendered 21 goals in less than seven full games, head coach Dave Burkholder decided he’d seen enough, and gave sophomore Allen Barton the start last Friday against Western Michigan. That ended Van Nynatten’s streak of 12 consecutive starts for the Purple Eagles dating back to March 5 of last season.
Barton was strong in the series opener, stopping a career-high 37 shots in a heartbreaking 4-3 loss, a game decided on a three-on-two with just 22 seconds remaining. He stumbled somewhat in the second game, allowing four goals on 17 shots, and was lifted toward the end of the second period. Instead of Van Nynatten coming on in relief, it was freshman Scott Mollison who saw his first collegiate action.
And it doesn’t look like Burkholder is ready to give the top job back to Van Nynatten anytime soon. Mollison will get his first NCAA start this Friday when Niagara hosts Quinnipiac.
“This upcoming weekend, I’m going to say that the other two goaltenders who played last weekend are better suited for where we are as a team right now, and they’re going to play as well,” Burkholder said. “Really, from the start of training camp on [Mollison] has been very solid in practice. He’s worked efficiently enough in practice that I want to give this kid some minutes, I want to see what he can do. He’s earned a start and that’s what’s going to happen on Friday.”
Instability in net wasn’t something that many thought Niagara would have to deal with this season. But in just their 10th game, the Eagles find themselves with their third different starting goalie. It’s a situation Burkholder hopes will be resolved one way or another in the near future.
“I would like someone to take it and run with it. I’ve been saying that for probably the last three or four years,” Burkholder stated. “Even with what we did last year, I told Scott he had a chance to come in and compete for playing time as a freshman. That certainly has come to fruition so far.”
Gale-Force Winds Blowing In Niagara
While Van Nynatten has been somewhat of a disappointment so far, Ryan Gale has been a pleasant surprise. The senior forward leads all Niagara scorers with seven goals and is second on the team with 10 points, trailing only Barret Ehgoetz in that category. His goal total is just two shy of the nine he scored in 34 games last season, and his 10 points are just three behind the 13 he picked up in 2003-04.
“We thought he could be this type of player,” said Burkholder. “He started out this season so well. He was creating things, he was using his speed on the run, and this was on our third line. He was playing so well I just thought we have to give this kid a chance up on the top line with Barret.”
The pairing has worked wonders for Gale, who picked up two goals in a 6-1 victory against Vermont on Oct. 22, then netted the game-winner in a 3-2 victory against the Catamounts the following evening.
The goal onslaught continued the next weekend, when Gale scored twice again in a 5-3 win against Clarkson.
“Everything just seems to be going in for him,” said Burkholder. “He’s on a good roll and it’s certainly well-deserved. He’s always one of our hardest working kids.”
That was evident in last Friday’s 4-3 loss to Western Michigan. Gale opened the scoring just 3:26 into the game, beating Broncos goaltender Daniel Bellissimo during a four on four chance, only to see Brent Walton even the score at 1-1 11 seconds later.
But 70 seconds later, and still on the four on four, the Eagles regained the lead with a magnificent individual effort from Gale.
“Whenever we get a chance four on four, he’s one of our top players in that area just because of his speed. He’s so good on the rush,” Burkholder stated. “His one goal was a one on two. He drove the defensemen wide and let a slapshot that beat the goalie under the bar. I think his other line mates were coming on a change. So it shows you he at times has been a one man show for us.
“There’s no question what Ryan’s done so early is he’s put us in position to win games, or he’s kept games close. We’ve lost a lot of one goal games. Quite frankly he’s credited for a couple of wins.”
Bemidji State entered last weekend’s tilts against Minnesota State sporting a record of 0-16-2 on Olympic-sized ice sheets since beginning Division I play. Unfortunately for coach Tom Serratore’s Beavers, that zero in the win column was still there after the two-game series against the Mavericks, and was joined by a couple more placeholders.
Bemidji dropped both contests by identical 4-0 scores, marking the first time in 58 games that the Beavers had been held off the scoresheet. The last time the team had been shut out was Dec. 7, 2002, when Minnesota-Duluth took a 12-0 win.
It was also the first time since making the move to Division I that the Beavers suffered consecutive blankings.
Serratore declined to blame the loss on the oversized ice, instead giving the credit to the team coached by Troy Jutting, Serratore’s former college roommate.
“The bottom line is we just got beat by a better team both nights. They were quicker than us and they played their ‘A’ games,” he said. “They needed those games. They started out 1-5, but they’re a heck of a hockey team.”
Still, the home ice advantage – a term which can really be applied in this situation – had to play some part in the Mavericks’ success.
“When you don’t practice on that sheet and don’t play on that sheet, it’s a different game,” Serratore said. “You have to factor in who we’re playing in those games: the University of Minnesota, St. Cloud, Mankato. These are good schools. They’re great teams anyway, but then you get them on their ice sheets, they know how to use the whole ice sheet, they’ve got players geared toward that. It’s very difficult to play on that if you don’t play on it a lot.”
Another factor for the poor outings could be inactivity. While some teams had already played eight games heading into last weekend’s action, Bemidji had taken to the ice in competitive fashion just three times – with one of those games being an exhibition against Manitoba. The lack of playing time certainly didn’t help, according to Serratore.
“We’re still trying to find some chemistry, we’re trying to find our special teams,” he said. “It’s difficult to go into a place like Mankato when they’ve played six games, and they’ve played North Dakota, Duluth and Minnesota. And we played two games and had a bye week. It’s not an excuse, but it’s not the easiest thing either. We’ve got to get into a groove, and hopefully when we get into a groove we’re going to play better.
Weekly Award Winners
Offensive POTW – Mark Nebus, Wayne State Warrior sophomore picks up three points (2-1) on the weekend, bringing his season total to seven points (2-5). He recorded eight all of last year.
Defensive POTW – Scott Munroe, UAH Two in a row for Munroe! Chargers’ goalie stops 54 of 57 shots in wins against Robert Morris for consecutive weekly awards
Rookie OTW – Mike Salekin, UAH Freshman defenseman notches three points (1-2) in conference victories against the Colonials, giving him five points in five games.
The 400 Club
With a win this weekend, Bill Wilkinson will become the 23rd coach to reach 400 victories, and the second this season. Minnesota coach Don Lucia picked up No. 400 with a 5-2 win against Denver in the season opener on Oct. 9.
“I was on the team when he got his 200th win. Obviously I don’t want to be a part of his 400th win this way.” – RMU coach Derek Schooley, who played for Wilkinson at Western Michigan and faces him as a coach this weekend.