Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Know Your Enemy: Clarkson

The next team is one that needs no introduction to RPI fans. The Engineers have faced the Golden Knights 131 times, more than any other single team. They are the traditional rivals for two important reasons - like RPI, Clarkson is known for its engineering programs, and the teams have been playing together in the same league for 60 consecutive seasons. The fact that Clarkson nearly always has an outstanding team only serves to fuel the flames on the RPI side, and although Clarkson's biggest rival will always be St. Lawrence, there's a special level of dislike reserved for RPI as well.

Nickname: Golden Knights
Location: Potsdam, NY
Founded: 1896
Conference: ECAC
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2008
Last Frozen Four: 1991
Coach: George Roll (8th season)
2009-10 Record: 9-24-4 (4-15-3 ECAC, 12th place)
Series: Clarkson leads, 80-43-8
First Game: January 24, 1925 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: February 6, 2010 (Troy, NY)
Last CU win: February 27, 2009 (Troy, NY)

2010-11 games: January 7, 2011 (Troy, NY); February 19, 2011 (Potsdam, NY)
Key players: F Brandon DeFazio, sr.; F Scott Freeman, sr.; F Louke Oakley, jr.; F Nick Tremblay, jr.; F Corey Tamblyn, jr.; F Adam Pawlick, so.; F Allan McPherson, fr.; D Bryan Rufenach, sr.; D Mark Borowiecki, jr.; D Nik Pokulok, so.; G Paul Karpowich, jr.

Key losses: F Matt Beca, D Jeremiah Crowe

Clarkson hockey has long had the impressive claim of possessing the highest winning percentage in the history of Division I college hockey, but that claim has recently regressed to merely being "among the best" due to a few difficult seasons of late, the most recent of which may well, by a number of different metrics, be considered the worst in the history of the program. Generally speaking, however, the program is at the very least notable as the most successful program that has never claimed an NCAA championship.

Hockey at Clarkson had humble beginnings in the mid-1910s, when students would gather on the frozen Raquette River to take on teams from the local Native American reservation. The varsity program officially got its start in 1921, earning a winning season in its very first year, which would be a sign of things (eventually) to come, though the Knights struggled through the rest of the early 1920s with a record of 13-19-1 over their first six seasons. The 1927 season would get the tradition of winning going in earnest, as Clarkson went 8-1-0 for the first of 12 consecutive seasons running through 1938, during which the Knights went 108-28-2.

In 1939, the Golden Knights moved into what was then called Clarkson Arena (later Walker Arena), an on-campus indoor rink. The building underscored how deeply the hockey program was becoming associated with the school, considering that Clarkson had a total enrollment around 500 students at the time, and indoor rinks were still rare even at schools that were four times that size.

The program was suspended in 1945 due to World War II for two seasons, but when the team returned, new coach Bill Harrison was ready to build them into a high-powered program. In 1950 the Knights, along with RPI, St. Lawrence, Colgate, Williams, and Middlebury, were inaugural members of the Tri-State League, one of the earliest formally organized leagues in the history of college hockey. Clarkson claimed the league's first championship with a 12-2-1 record overall, and while the Knights took a back seat to some dominant RPI teams in the early 1950s, the middle of the decade would produce perhaps the greatest Clarkson team ever, if not one of greatest teams in the history of the game.

The 1955-56 Golden Knights dominated practically every game they played, turning in an amazing 23-0-0 record, the first unbeaten, untied season in the modern era, and earned their first invitation to the NCAA tournament, where they likely would have been favorites. Unfortunately, due to NCAA regulations at the time, eight seniors on the team were in their fourth year playing on the team, while student-athletes were only allowed three seasons at the varsity level. The team could still play, but those eight seniors would be ineligible. Rather than play without them, Clarkson turned down the invitation.

Harrison would guide the Knights to two additional NCAA invitations in the following two seasons which were accepted, but Clarkson could not get past the semifinal round, taking third place both years. In all, over Harrison's final four years in Potsdam, the Golden Knights were a ridiculous 75-8-0 outside of NCAA tournament play. Harrison, who was also a civil engineering professor, left the program in 1958. His replacement, Len Ceglarski, would on three occasions take the Golden Knights to the brink of the national championship over the course of his 14 seasons at the helm.

In Ceglarski's second season in 1960, Clarkson won only 7 games, but it would be the last time the team failed to reach the 10-win mark for nearly a half-century. It would also be Ceglarski's only losing season in Potsdam - two years later, in the first season of the ECAC, he guided the Golden Knights to their very first national championship game, where they dropped a 7-1 game to Michigan Tech despite being the nominal home team in Utica. The Knights would return to the NCAA tournament in 1963, and in 1966 won their first ECAC championship and reached the national championship game a second time, losing 6-1 to Michigan State. Four years later, the Knights would reach their third, and to date, last national championship game, coming close to ruining league rival Cornell's unbeaten and untied season, but losing 6-4 in Lake Placid.

Ceglarski would leave Clarkson in 1972 to take over the program at Boston College. His replacement would be a Boston College alum who would cut his teeth at Clarkson before going on to become a legend himself - Jerry York. York's seven year tenure in Potsdam was light on hardware, as the Knights won only the 1977 ECAC regular season title during his time behind the bench, but he continued the expectation of excellence. His second and third seasons (1974 and 1975) were the first losing seasons in 12 years and would be the last losing seasons for over a quarter-century afterwards. One of York's legacies at Clarkson is in recruiting perhaps the greatest player in school history, Dave Taylor.

York left for Bowling Green in 1979, but Clarkson didn't miss a beat in the 1980s under Bill O'Flaherty and Cap Raeder, making three more NCAA appearances in 1981, 1982, and 1984. Mark Morris' arrival in 1988, however, turned things up a notch in Potsdam. The 1990s were a truly dominant decade for Clarkson, as Morris led the team to 10 consecutive 20-win seasons from 1990 to 1999, a stretch which included 4 ECAC regular season titles, 3 ECAC championships, and 9 NCAA appearances - every season but their 20-9-5 year in 1993-94, largely stopped that year by an upset from RPI in Lake Placid - and a Frozen Four appearance in 1991. All told, the Golden Knights were 303-156-42 under Morris.

The party ended in 2002 under controversial circumstances. After the Knights uncharacteristically opened the 2002-o3 season with three losses, Morris was suspended after striking a player during a practice session. That year, under interim coach Fred Parker, the Knights limped to their first losing season since 1975, and lost 20 games for the first time in school history - the previous high had been 15.

Former Oswego State head coach George Roll was hired the following season, and his seven seasons have been something of a mixed bag. The program struggled through his first three years as Roll recruited the players he needed to run his system, and those struggles paid off in 2007 and 2008 as the Golden Knights had back-to-back 20-win seasons and NCAA appearances for the first time since the long stretch in the 1990s, the ECAC championship in 2007, the ECAC regular season title in 2008. That season, the Knights came within a goal of playing in their 8th Frozen Four.

But the last two years have been dismal indeed. Clarkson has a record of only 19-43-11 since coming that close to the ECAC's first Frozen Four appearance since 2003. Last year was particularly difficult, as the young team was ravaged by injuries all season long after starting the season with a legal controversy with two freshman defensemen that left them shorthanded on the blue line all season long even before the injuries. The 9-24-4 season re-established the school record for losses in a season and represented the first time since 1960 that the team failed to reach at least 10 wins. Additionally, the Golden Knights finished in dead last on the ECAC table for the first time in school history.

The numbers underscore how difficult the season was last year for Clarkson. The Knights had the worst offense, led only Brown's dismal defense, and put up the worst power play numbers in the ECAC on their way to finishing 12th by 5 points behind the 11th place Bears.

It doesn't get much easier from there. Matt Beca represented nearly 20% of the Knights' offense with 20 goals and 18 assists, and he will not be back. The good news is that Clarkson did have several young players in the high single-digits in goals, including Tremblay, Tamblyn, and Pawlick- one or more of those players will need to step up this season for the Golden Knights to bounce back. McPherson arrives in Potsdam after a 40-goal campaign in the COJHL last season, he could be a much needed shot in the arm. Also, former Engineer Mark Zarbo's younger brother Matt joins the Golden Knights this season.

Defensively, junior goaltender Paul Karpowich is going to need to display some of the promise that led the St. Louis Blues to draft him back in 2008. The difficulty that he has had in replacing David Leggio, who was the stalwart in net on those back-to-back NCAA teams, has been a big part of Clarkson's struggles over the last couple of seasons. His numbers as a freshman were mediocre and atrocious last season - although at least some of that can be chalked up to the issues the Knights had on defense in front of him.

The Golden Knights were terribly young last year - Beca and Crowe were two of only three seniors on the team - but a number of the remaining players are going to have to have much better seasons this year if Clarkson is going to vie for home ice in the playoffs. If not, it could well be another season of fans scratching their heads and asking out loud - "is this really Clarkson?"

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