Will late-season surge fuel Colgate in new campaign?

What’s to be said about the 2011-12 Colgate Raiders?

How about that there’s nowhere to go but up?

That backhanded compliment is all but literal, as the last iteration of Raiders hockey set program records for futility with eight- and 14-game winless slides, no league wins until the first week of February, and no wins by that point against opponents not named Sacred Heart or Army.

Yet as so often happens in our utterly inexplicable conference, the ‘Gate fanned its last remaining ember in early February into something resembling an inferno, going 8-4-1 over its next 13 games and knocking off playoff opponents Rensselaer and Union in the process. The miracle run ended with an utterly explicable 4-0 setback at the hands of Yale in Atlantic City, followed by a dispiriting 5-3 loss to Dartmouth in the consolation game.

“The bulk of our team is back, and expecting our defense to shore itself up. We got all of our D corps back with the exception of [graduate] Wade Poplawski,” said longtime coach Don Vaughan. “We do have a pretty good group of guys returning who we’re expecting to play as they did in the last six or eight weeks of [last] season.”

As disappointing a season as Colgate had last year, by most standards, they still possessed a couple of elite scoring threats in Brian Day and Francois Brisebois. Their time has passed now, though, as the newly minted alumni pass the torch on to a new pack of goal-hungry predators.

“Our scoring is going to have to come from other places than Brisebois and Day, since they’re no longer with us,” Vaughan said. “We’re looking to guys like Chris Wagner and Austin Smith and Robbie Bourdon and Kurtis Bartliff to pick up the slack, and I think offensively that’ll be the group that will carry the load for us, with the addition of a couple of very skilled forwards from the freshman class. Joey Wilson, John Lidgett and Daniel Gentzler will all see time early, and we’re looking for them to contribute as well.”

Wagner and newcomer Wilson earned extra attention from Vaughan in his preseason assessment: “Wagner … had a good year last year. He’s a big, strong guy, he had a great camp in Anaheim with the [NHL] prospects, and that was a great experience for him. He’s in a real good place physically — he’s as healthy as he’s ever been, he’s stronger, and I think he’ll be one of the premier players in our league in the not-too-distant future. He’s someone that we really like, and someone that others will start to take note of. He’s going to be on all situations — power play, penalty killing, and he’ll probably be on our top line with Austin Smith.”

“Joey [Wilson] has got explosive speed,” Vaughan said. “He’s a beautiful skater, he’s got a real pro stride, and he’s played with the developmental team. He actually had an opportunity to play against us in a game with the Under-18 team, and I think he had a goal in that game. That was two years ago. He just seems more ready than a couple of the other guys. I could see him starting the season on the wing with Wagner and Smith; I think those guys can help bring him along, maybe sooner rather than later.”

In the way back, sophomore Eric Mihalik and senior Alex Evin ought to be fighting for minutes from the get-go, as each has been a No. 1 netminder in the past two years.

Over the offseason, Vaughan and his returning Raiders made a team trip to Italy and Switzerland, where the team did a little sightseeing, a little practicing and played a handful of games against the local teams. A great team-building experience, of course, but will the payoff be best measured in francs or lire? The Raiders hope that the excursion has bought them a bit of a head start, but as they now know, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

About the Raiders

2010-11 overall record: 11-28-3

2010-11 ECAC record: 4-15-3 (12th)

2011-12 predicted finish (coaches poll): 10th

Key losses: F Francois Brisebois, F Brian Day, D Wade Poplawski

Players to watch: Senior F Austin Smith, junior F Kurtis Bartliff, junior F Robbie Bourdon, sophomore F Chris Wagner, sophomore G Eric Mihalik

Impact rookie: F Joey Wilson

Why the Raiders will finish higher than the coaches poll: This year’s team will show that last year’s results were completely unrepresentative of Colgate’s talent and ability.

Why the Raiders will finish lower than the coaches poll: Brisebois and Day will have proven even more valuable than their stats indicated, and confidence will never coalesce in Hamilton.