This Week in West Region D-III: Nov. 11, 2004

In a season still too young to have developed pure frontrunners in the West, the MIAC promises to be one of the more tightly contested leagues in Division III. The league’s predicted top four teams–St. Thomas, St. John’s, St. Olaf and Gustavus Adolphus–all have a good mesh of upperclassmen who have tasted success and fresh talent at the freshman and sophomore level.

It’s too early to tell who will break away from the pack, but here are some things to look for as the 2004-2005 season progresses in the MIAC.

Tommie Boys

Terry Skrypek’s St. Thomas team is poised to climb the ranks of both the MIAC and Division III standings–and not just because they beat ranked teams Lake Forest and St. Norbert last weekend. The Tommies began to show their almost-annual winning ways last year after starting out 0-4-0. After that slump, they registered only one loss in their next 17 games. The team then overtook regular season MIAC champ St. John’s in the league playoffs for a bid at the NCAA tournament, but lost in the first round to Wisconsin-River Falls.

So where do the Tommies go from here? Directly to two stalwart seniors: captain Dustan Lick and goaltender Zack Sikich. Lick, a 5-11, 190-pound forward, came alive last year, scoring at almost a goal-per-game pace (24g in 28 games). He is expected to shoulder much of the scoring load, but has some talented help in set-up man Brandon Wilcox and senior forward Anthony Blumer. The trio has already accounted for 7 of the Tommies’ 11 goals in the two games the Tommies have played this year.

Behind a defense which boasts six returning blueliners is Sikich, who started the lion’s share of games last season and finished with a solid 16-8-3 record and a .907 save percentage. Sikich will be depended upon early to right the ship if the Tommies’ top forwards go into a prolonged scoring slump.

Thus far, St. Thomas has looked impressive, especially in their 5-3 season opener against then-No. 2 St. Norbert. But the Tommies must remain consistent through the season and not overlook weaker competition in the MIAC. They also must start strong in their interlocking matchups with NCHA rivals Wisconsin-River Falls and Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

St. Thomas goes head to head with Wisconsin-River Falls at home on Friday, Nov. 12, then plays again at the Academy Arena against Wisconsin Stout on Saturday, Nov. 13.

Johnnies on the spot

It’s not that this season’s St. John’s team is woefully disappointed at losing to St. Thomas in the MIAC title game last year after winning it in 2002-2003. It’s just that last year’s team was a lesson in when talent meets expectation–and falls just short. The Johnnies of 2003-2004 (22-4-1 overall, 15-1-0 MIAC) seemed bound for glory as they won their last 15 regular season contests and made short work of St. Olaf in the semifinal. Then, in an overtime heartbreaker, it all came crashing down.

This year, the pressure is on. Junior Ryan Langenbrunner, the incredibly gifted cornerstone of the Johnnies’ offense, is expected to help lead his team to the promised land once again, and get that coveted automatic bid to the big dance. Langenbrunner is joined on the roster by five former All-Americans, including last year’s team scoring leader Scott Bjorklund and star senior defenseman Adam Holmgren. This core group of veterans shapes perhaps the most naturally talented team in the MIAC.

But talent alone won’t make the Johnnies champions. Head coach John Harrington is expected to continue his successful tenure with an offense that can skate and score with anyone, but the team–that begins play this weekend against Northland–has to be ready for the occasional slump, the periodic close game. If the Johnnies are up to the challenge, they will remain a formidable test for the MIAC and the division as a whole.

Oles on the rise

Note: No “Golden Girls” or Betty White references will be made in this preview of St. Olaf. It is safe to read on.

St. Olaf’s 11-12-4 record in 2003-2004 belied a team that seemed ready to surprise all comers. Their sub-par start contributed to their drop down the standings, but the Oles applied themselves and played their way into the MIAC tourney, beating St. Mary’s before falling to a much stronger St. John’s team in the semifinals.

This year, strong offense will be the key to returning to the league playoffs. The Oles can ill afford to get caught in the barn-burning affairs that they fell victim to last season. Expect sophomore sniper Kyle Hilmershausen to shine this year and improve on his 10-goal freshman campaign. Also, look for the Oles’ fast–but light–defense to provide support for the goalie tandem of sophomore Jeff Wilde and junior Dan Kehler. These goaltenders were lost in the quartet of shuffled goaltenders that never provided the consistency that was so desperately needed in close contests last year.

St. Olaf (1-0-1) plays back-to-back home games against Wisconsin-Stevens Point on Friday, Nov. 12, and faces Wisconsin-Eau Claire on Saturday, Nov. 13.

Gusties almost there

Okay. They lost their first two games this year at home in what was hoped to be a quick start for Gustavus Adolphus. But keep in mind that the Golden Gusties did the same thing last year, only to forge a winning record of 12-11-3 and made the MIAC semifinal.

The Gusties are looking to make their third straight league playoff appearance, and they certainly have the horses to pull it off. With 15 returning lettermen, Gustavus will be watched by everyone in the league; there’s no chance of sneaking up on any team after two consecutive playoff appearances.

The Gusties are anchored by an experienced defense, led by juniors Adam Meyer (currently leading the team with 4 points in two games) and Keith Detlefsen, plus senior Nick Droogsma. They will be depended upon heavily as they will be playing in front of Brett Sawyer, a skilled sophomore netminder who takes over for former starter Dan Melde.

The Gusties’ offensive units spread the scoring around, but scoring slumps on the part of their forwards may spell disaster for this team attempting to stay with the big boys of the MIAC.

Gustavus Adolphus plays Wisconsin-Eau Claire (Nov. 12) and Wisconsin-Stevens Point (Nov. 13) at home this weekend.

Is winning in the Cards?

This year, St. Mary’s head man Don Olson is faced with the unenviable task of replacing 11 graduated players. Though the Cardinals are relatively strong in net with senior Ryne Ess–coming off his breakout season in 2003-2004–team defense is an area where they struggle.

Last year’s team did a good job in winning consistently throughout the year. Unfortunately, among their 11 losses were games they should have won, for all intents and purposes. If Olson can lengthen the learning curve for his new-look team, they may be able to eke out another winning season. If they can’t win the close ones, however, the Cardinals may be in for a bumpy flight.

Auggie nation hoping for a winner

The Augsburg Auggies are hoping that youth will be served in 2004-2005. With only three seniors on the roster, it may look like a team that is too green to make any noise in the league. However, head coach Mike Schwartz is expecting much from his recent recruits, and needs them to produce right away.

Gone are Brad Bjorgum and Collin Nash. To replace their offensive output, Schwartz has looked to the Great White North for Canadian junior hockey standouts to add a new element to his Auggie squad. Returning from last year are three key forwards: Brett Osness, Cody Swanson, and the man with the coolest name in Division III hockey, Critter Nagurski.

The defense could be shaky in the early going as the youngsters try to mesh with the veterans. Nevertheless, the Auggies should definitely improve on last year’s dismal 8-13-4 record and will get better as the team gels over the next two years.

The rest …

Concordia–The Cobbers struggled through an awful season last year, but are looking to rebuild with young players as their upperclassmen head to graduation. While they may not be competitive right away, Concordia fans were thrilled last weekend by the debut performance of freshman goaltender Josh Hand, who made a staggering 54 saves in a loss to Wisconsin-Stout. Coach Steve Baumgartner has the right idea in building from the nets out, and his younger players should benefit from the 14 upperclassmen leading the way.

Bethel–Bethel was crushed 8-2 in their first non-conference tilt with Wisconsin-Eau Claire. What surprised many was how they bounced back to shut out Wisconsin-Stevens Point the next night. While a win like this would give many struggling squads an inkling of hope, the Royals aren’t too hasty to expect wins just yet. The Royals are quite simply a work in progress. Aside from standout goaltender Dustin Thompson and forwards Kris Birch and Ryan Adams, this is a team trying to find itself amid last year’s lost season that saw them get blown out regularly. This edition of Bethel hockey can steal wins as we saw last week, but barring a miracle season, the Royals will still be on the short end for the foreseeable future.

Hamline–New head coach Chris Brown has a giant task ahead of him. Last year’s Pipers absolutely flamed out, losing their first 19 games and only winning one league contest. They were outscored 55-9 away from State Fair Coliseum, and will have to play the spoiler this season. There’s no question that if Brown’s freshmen can pick up the college game quickly, Hamline could surprise in the MIAC.


No. 4 Wisconsin-River Falls @ No. 3 St. Thomas (Friday, 11/12)
This one is gonna be good. After its upset of St. Norbert last weekend, St. Thomas leaped forward in the D-III poll seven spots up to No. 3. Wisconsin-River Falls has been a scoring machine thus far, but the Tommies have early season confidence that will be hard to beat. Take St. Thomas over the Falcons in a relatively close matchup.

St. Mary’s @ Wisconsin-Stout (Friday, 11/12)
If either of these two unranked team are going to forge ahead, this weekend would be a good time to do so. St. Mary’s has had a rough start to the season, and may not be able to stop the Blue Devils offensively. The Cardinals fall to 0-3-0 after this weekend

Wisconsin-Stevens Point @ Gustavus Adolphus (Saturday, 11/13)
The Gusties may have trouble with Wisconsin-Eau Claire on Friday, but they get off the schneid with a convincing win over Stevens Point on Saturday.

Wisconsin-Eau Claire @ St. Olaf (Saturday, 11/13)
The Blugolds come to St. Olaf looking to pull the upset on the road. But Sean Goldsworthy’s squad should be up to the challenge defensively. After two games, the Oles have allowed only three goals, and defense will make the difference as St. Olaf wins this one.