Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Know Your Enemy: Bowling Green

Last week we touched on a team in Atlantic Hockey that was limping along in their recent history. Today, in part seven of "Know Your Enemy," we discuss a program that has perhaps the most striking night and day history you'll ever see, a program that has reached the highest of the highs but has descended to the lowest of lows. They're also the only one in our series who the Engineers may not actually see this season - the only "potential" enemy on the schedule.

Bowling Green
Nickname: Falcons
Location: Bowling Green, OH
Founded: 1910
Conference: CCHA
National Championships: 1 (1984)
Last NCAA Appearance: 1990
Last Frozen Four: 1984
Coach: Chris Bergeron (1st season)
2009-10 Record: 5-25-6 (4-18-6-5 CCHA, 11th place)
Series: Tied, 8-8-1
First Game: January 2, 1970 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: January 18, 2002 (Troy, NY)
Last BGSU win: January 20, 2001 (Bowling Green, OH)

2010-11 game: November 27, 2010 (Troy, NY - potential)
Key players: F David Solway, sr.; F Jordan Samuels-Thomas, so.; F Bryce Williamson, fr.; F Andrew Wallace, fr.; D Andrew Krelove, sr.; G Nick Eno, sr.

One of only a handful of former national champions with only one to their name - Harvard and Northern Michigan are the only other ones - Bowling Green State University was a beast during the 1980s, but are now in one of the toughest positions in all of college hockey: threatened with the loss of their program. No former national champion has ever later gone on to drop hockey altogether, and though much of the immediate danger of this actually happening has passed, the program is still dealing with some of the fallout of the news last year that hockey may have been on the chopping block.

Varsity hockey at BGSU began in 1969, when the Falcons played their first two seasons in Division III's MCHA before becoming a charter member of the CCHA in 1971. Bowling Green was immediately one of the best teams in the new conference, finishing third in its first season and winning the league title in 1973. The following season, Ron Mason would come to BGSU from Lake Superior State, where he had guided the Lakers to an amazing record of 129-47-8 record over seven seasons. Mason became known at LSSU, he would begin to build what would become his legendary status at BGSU.

The Falcons remained CCHA contenders early in Mason's tenure, but he would take them even higher. They would finish first in the regular season for the first time in 1976, and won the first of three straight CCHA championships in 1977, reaching the Frozen Four for the first time in 1978, just nine seasons into their varsity hockey existence. Mason left in 1979 for Michigan State having secured six 20-win seasons in as many tries, and guiding the Falcons to back-to-back 30-win seasons in 1978 and 1979, a very impressive feat for that day and age.

Mason had been a legend in the making, and he was replaced by yet another legend in the making - Jerry York. York had been coaching at Clarkson for seven seasons when the BGSU job became available, and it was under York that the Falcons would reach their greatest heights. The team claimed the storied MacNaughton Cup in each of the only three years it was awarded in the CCHA (Michigan Tech, the award's trustee, left the WCHA for the CCHA from 1981 to 1984) as the regular season champions, and in 1984, BGSU rose to the very top of the college hockey world, knocking off BU and their old coach Ron Mason's Michigan State before playing the longest national championship game in the history of the Frozen Four - a 4 overtime thriller in Lake Placid that ended when BGSU's Gino Cavallini netted the game winner against Minnesota-Duluth to claim the title.

York would guide BGSU to another CCHA regular season title in 1987, a CCHA championship in 1988, and four straight NCAA appearances from 1987 to 1990, but the Falcons would not reach those heights again. They were one-and-done in each of their NCAA appearances, and despite York's 9 straight 20-win seasons from 1981 to 1990, the party was definitely over in Bowling Green. The Falcons would limp through four losing seasons in York's final four seasons, and he left for his alma mater, Boston College, in 1994 - like Mason, leaving BGSU for a job which would make him even more legendary. Mason and York are now 1-2 in most wins by a coach in college hockey.

Buddy Powers, who was, at the time, behind the bench in Troy, was BGSU's choice to replace York in 1994. Powers had taken the Engineers to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since their national championship in 1985 and had built the core of the team that would claim the ECAC title in 1995. Powers showed promise in his first two seasons, guiding the Falcons to back-to-back 20-win seasons and a 2nd place regular season showing in 1995, but things would drop off fairly quickly. The Falcons finished 11th in the CCHA in 1998, failing to reach 10 wins for the first time in school history. Powers would be at the helm for four more losing seasons before leaving the school in 2002.

Since 1997, Powers' third season in Bowling Green, the Falcons have finished with a record at .500 only once, in 2005, and have never finished above .500. Over the past nine seasons, BGSU has finished either last or next to last in the CCHA six times, and has amassed a CCHA playoff record of 2-19 during that stretch.

Things got worse in 2009. A budget shortfall at the school led to the scrapping of a planned renovation on BGSU's rink. Shortly thereafter, word came down that the program itself might have become the next victim. Some players, concerned about the future of the program, chose to transfer - including Nick Bailen, who played for the Falcons in the 2008-09 season and will be a sophomore at RPI this season. Head coach Scott Paluch then left the program to take a position at USA Hockey. Things looked grim, and in 2010, under interim coach Dennis Williams, BGSU won only 5 games all season, by far their lowest total in program history.

Chris Bergeron, a long-time assistant at Miami, now has the task of righting the ship in Bowling Green, and it will not be easy. Although alumni funding and fundraising has helped raise the money needed to keep the program going, Bergeron will need to start bringing in the kinds of talent that have been missing at BGSU for nearly 20 years to get this program on its feet again. In the meantime, however, there's a big hole for the Falcons to climb out of. Remember last week when we mentioned that only one team besides UConn scored at a clip below 2.00 goals per game? Bowling Green was that other team, managing a pace of only 1.97. Their defense was even worse than that of the Huskies, as the Falcons had a team GAA of 3.83, though that can at least be partially explained by the fact that BGSU plays in a more difficult conference. The Falcons were fourth in the nation in penalty minutes per game, and dead last in penalty killing, snuffing out less than 3 in 4 of their opponent's power plays. Their own power plays were equally dreadful, scoring on only 11.7% of their man advantages, 56th in the nation out of 58. In short, nothing worked last year for BGSU.

There's not really anywhere else to go but up for the Falcons, but it does get worse. Six of their eight highest scorers - on a team with very little scoring - were seniors. Samuels-Thomas did lead the team in scoring last year with 11 goals and 14 assists, while Solway was third with 5 goals and 13 assists, but it's difficult to see where else the scoring might be coming from. There's probably going to need to be a huge contribution from the freshmen (along the line of Samuels-Thomas' freshman campaign last year), especially Williamson and Wallace, if things are going to improve.

Defensively, senior goaltender Nick Eno is a Buffalo draftee, but Eno has never put up numbers like he had in his freshman year, which weren't much to write home about: 2.79 GAA and .905 save percentage. Unless freshman Wyatt Galley is ready to step in and be the man in Bowling Green, things don't look promising in net, either.

Most RPI fans will probably be hoping for a matchup with BGSU, if only because it would mean avoiding a matchup with Alabama-Huntsville, who the Engineers have two confirmed games against the following month. The strategy for dealing with the Falcons would be remarkably similar to the strategy for the Huskies - the ability to get up for this game would be key with the student section empty for the tournament. Unless BGSU's freshmen turn out to be some kind of super class, this is also a game RPI would have to win decisively if they are going to be vying for bigger and better things down the road.

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