You Say You Want An Evolution?

Who finished last in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association last season? U-N-O.

Will Nebraska-Omaha repeat the dubious feat in 2004-05? You can spell that one N-O.

After a 2003-04 season in which their record was a paltry 8-26-5, you might think that Maverick coach Mike Kemp spelled relief the same way they do on those antacid commercials. Instead, the stomach-settling remedy has been a prodigious youth movement. The turnaround has been dramatic: On the weekend before Turkey Day, the Mavericks could give thanks for their fifth CCHA victory — matching their total for all of last season.

“We’ve had the fortune to infuse a lot of young talent into our lineup,” Kemp says. “That’s been the biggest single factor. A year ago, we had a lot of that same talent, but it was freshman talent, and it’s hard to have freshmen carry a team. But they grew over their freshman year, and we added some real key and talented guys to that class that’s now sophomores, and that’s helped contribute to a good start for us.”

It’s a 7-4-1 start, actually — not bad for a team that features a solitary senior (forward Dan Hacker) among its key contributors. In fact, seven of the team’s eight top scorers are either freshmen or sophomores, and regular netminder Chris Holt is in just his second season as well. So far the upstart Mavericks have earned a respectable split against Michigan State and just took three of four points against a solid Ohio State team last weekend. But a strong start really helped this young team believe in themselves.

“The big difference is that we just started off really strong — four wins in our first four games — and we had confidence after that,” says Scott Parse, a sophomore who is tied for sixth in the nation with 7-11-18 in his first 12 games played this year. “It’s contagious.”

According to Mike Lefley — already in his second year as team captain as a junior this season — there were a few other factors. “We have a good group of freshmen that came in that really established themselves right off the bat and who are playing really well,” Lefley said. “We were kind of fed up with what happened last year, and we were geared up and ready to go this season. We had a mindset that we were better than that.”

Of the aforementioned freshmen, the most eyebrow-raising has been Pittsburgh native Bill Thomas. The right winger is tied for second in points scored in D-1 with 19 in his first 12 collegiate games. No other freshman is currently in the top 20.

“Bill is a very, very great forward,” Lefley said. “He’s big; he’s got great hands, and he can finish a play. That’s a big difference — we have goal-scorers on the team now; nobody’s gripping their sticks and saying ‘Oh, I’ve got to go out and score.’ We’ve got four lines that can get the job done.”

“I’m just playing with a lot of confidence, and playing with good linemates has helped out,” Thomas says. Fellow freshman Bryan Marshall centers his line and already has 11 points in as many games, while Parse is having a blast playing left wing on the top unit with the two newcomers.

“They both played in the USHL last year, and both were in the top five in scoring, so obviously they have really good skill,” Parse says of his linemates. “They’re playmakers, both really fast. I really like playing with them. I played with Bill Thomas in juniors — we were linemates in juniors — so that helps out too.”

With a USHL team playing right in Omaha-Thomas and Parse played for Tri-City, a rival of the Omaha team, UNO would appear to have ample opportunities to scout that league’s players when it comes to recruiting.

“Certainly everyone has their advantages in their geography,” Kemp says. “In the east, they have the prep schools. We’ve had the fortune of being able to use the USHL as a good area to recruit from, and we certainly take advantage of that.”

USHL recruit Parse certainly was one significant reason for optimism during last year’s trying times, when he led the team with 16 goals and 19 assists for 35 points in 39 games played as a freshman. He’s the kind of guy that you might not notice too much on the ice, except when you check the scoresheet at the end of the night.

“You know, it’s interesting,’ Kemp says. “He’s a guy who I would call smooth, who I would call a quiet hockey player. He’s not a guy who has a lot of flash, but as you watch him play he does all the little things right. He has a great nose for the net and a high skill level with the puck that gives him the opportunity to create a lot of offense.”

While the top line gets the most attention, there have been several other pleasant surprises this season. After a freshman year in which he confirmed his reputation as a defensive defenseman by notching just four points in 24 games, sophomore Dan Knapp already has three goals and seven assists in his first 12 games.

“He’s getting more power-play opportunities,” acknowledges Kemp. “He’s not a guy who before this was known prior to this as being a productively offensive defenseman. But he’s a smart hockey player; he comes from a hockey family. His father [Jim Knapp] played D-I hockey and coached for 20 years as an assistant coach at Minnesota-Duluth, coached the defenseman. So [Dan] has good hockey knowledge-he’s got the right genes, and he continues to evolve into a pretty smart hockey player.”

“He’s a gritty defenseman that jumps up into plays,” Lefley said of the blueliner. “He’s a real big force for us in getting pucks to the net.”

Parse cited the senior Hacker as another player who has exceeded expectations this season, scoring nine points in first 12 games after getting just 17 points in 37 games last year. “Hacker’s had a very good start,” says Parse. “He’s the hardest working guy on our team. He penalty kills all the time, and he’s finding ways to score this year.”

Meanwhile, captain Lefley is a vocal leader who has a knack for pumping up the team in the locker room. “He’s a hard-nosed guy; he gets in your face,” Parse says. “He’s a tough guy, and everyone respects him.”

Of course, winning keeps the team pretty juiced as well.

“Everybody’s excited to come to practice; everybody’s upbeat compared to last year,” Parse says. “You try to stay positive, but sometimes it’s hard coming to the rink because you’re losing every day.”

It all adds up to a program that looks poised to get to the next level.

“We started from scratch eight years ago,” Kemp says. “Now we’re trying to build a legacy in this program.”

“We’re not graduating very many people. We’ve got two guys already on campus who are going to be infused into the lineup. Nenad Gajic transferred in from Michigan State, and Adam Bartholomay, who played in Lincoln (USHL) a year ago, they’re both on campus gaining eligibility. We also have a young guy by the name of Danny Charleston coming from the Chicago Steel who’s going to be another impact player.”

Gajic was a 40-goal scorer in the BCHL a few years ago but didn’t play much for the Spartans in his sophomore year after enjoying some success as a freshman. He should be eligible this January, while Bartholomay and Charleston will join the lineup in October 2005.

If the past was tense, Kemp reminds that we still should be using the Conditional rather than the Present Perfect or Future Perfect Continuous in describing UNO’s prospects.

“We’re still a very young program,” Kemp says. “We’re only in year number eight of our existence. It’s like anything else: You evolve, and we’re still in the process of evolution. We’ve had a couple of successful years that we can build on.”

This process of evolution would seem to give reason to believe that the Mavericks could be an example of the survival of the fittest in D-I for several years to come.

“Definitely,” Parse says. “We don’t have very many older guys. We’re looking forward to this year and next year and the year after.”

“We think the future’s bright here,” Kemp agrees. “It’s like anything else: You continue to cultivate, continue to grow, continue to improve, but as young a squad as we have, we like where we’re at now and we like what the future holds for us, because we can continue to get better.

“We’re a program on the upswing, and the sky’s the limit here in Omaha.”