Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Know Your Enemy: Colgate

We're closing in on the regular season now, and we've still got three teams to look at to close out our Summer Cooler series - so they're going to start coming fast and furious now rather than just one a week. Today we're looking at a team that doesn't necessarily have a long and distinguished past, but at the very least has had some flashes of excellence combined with generally having a competent team every season - competent enough to give RPI fits regularly.

Nickname: Raiders
Location: Hamilton, NY
Founded: 1819
Conference: ECAC
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2005
Last Frozen Four: 1990
Coach: Don Vaughan (18th season)
2009-10 Record: 15-15-6 (12-8-2 ECAC, 4th place)
Series: RPI leads, 54-52-3
First Game: February 19, 1916 (Hamilton, NY)
Last RPI win: January 16, 2009 (Troy, NY)
Last CU win: February 26, 2010 (Hamilton, NY)

2010-11 games: January 15, 2011 (Hamilton, NY); February 11, 2011 (Troy, NY)
Key players: F Brian Day, sr.; F Francois Brisebois, sr.; F Austin Smith, jr.; F Nick Prockow, jr.; F Robbie Bourdon, so.; F Chris Wagner, fr.; D Wade Poplawski, sr.; D Kevin McNamara, sr.; D Corbin McPherson, jr.; D Thomas Larkin, so.; D Jeremy Price, so.; G Alex Evin, jr.

Key losses: F David McIntyre, F Jason Williams, G Charles Long

Colgate managed to earn a first-round bye last year by winning games against lesser teams - the only teams the Raiders beat last year with winning records were RIT, and RPI twice. That may be part of the reason they were swept in the first round by St. Lawrence. But as you can see, they bring back a solid core of experienced players who turned in great seasons last year.

The Red Raiders' first game against RPI was also the first game in their history - a 6-1 victory for Colgate in Hamilton in 1916, their only game that year. The team would not be firmly established as a regular program for another 12 years, eventually coming under the tutelage of Colgate professor Howie Starr, who took the reins in 1933. Although the Red Raiders struggled through the Great Depression with eight losing seasons during the 1930s, Starr would have the team among the best in the east at the end of the decade despite lacking an indoor rink.

In 1942, Starr (a World War I veteran) enlisted in the Army despite being old enough to avoid being drafted. The following year, the team went 11-0 despite his absence, following up on a 10-3 record the previous year. Like many other programs, the final years of World War II saw the team put on the shelf, but when Starr returned in 1946, so did the Red Raiders. In 1947, Starr oversaw an undefeated and untied season of his own, guiding Colgate to a 14-0-0 record that, had it come a year later, may have seen the Red Raiders invited to the very first NCAA Tournament. They would not achieve an invite in Starr's final three years, and he retired in 1950.

Colgate was an inaugural member of the Tri-State League in the 1950-51 season, but after a 2-7 record and struggling to complete with Clarkson, St. Lawrence, and RPI, all of which had indoor rinks on campus, the Red Raiders left the league and dropped hockey - the team would be dormant throughout most of the 1950s.

The opening of Starr Rink in 1959 heralded the return of Colgate hockey, just in time for the formation of the ECAC in 1961. It took the Red Raiders a few years to get up to speed, but by the time the ECAC opened for business, Colgate was regularly near the top of the standings in the eastern superconference in the early 60s.

The team generally finished with records near .500 into the late 60s, but the 1970s were not as kind. After a 14-7-3 season in 1970, the Red Raiders endured eight consecutive losing seasons, including a 5-22-1 record in 1978 in coach Terry Slater's first season. That stands today as one of the worst records Colgate has ever turned in, but it would not become a regular thing for Slater's teams.

As the 1980s got underway, Slater got the Red Raiders back into contention within the ECAC. Just three years after bottoming out, Slater and his charges - which included former RPI head coach Dan Fridgen - brought the program to a new high with their first 20-win season in 1981, which in turn delivered the Red Raiders to their very first NCAA tournament appearance. It was the preface for an outstanding decade in Hamilton, which would see the Red Raiders regularly appearing near the top of the ECAC standings in nearly every year of the decade.

In 1990, Slater almost brought Colgate all the way to the top. That season, the Red Raiders ran away with the ECAC regular season title, beat RPI 5-4 for their first (and thus far, only) ECAC title, and then made a run through the NCAAs in only their second ever appearance, reaching the national championship game in Detroit against Wisconsin. The Badgers would win the day, 7-3, but the future looked very bright in Hamilton after a 31-6-1 season.

But two seasons later, tragedy struck. Shortly after the Red Raiders completed a tough road weekend at Kent State in December, Terry Slater suffered a stroke, dying four days later on his 54th birthday. Assistant Brian Durocher, now the head coach of the women's team at Boston University, would take over for the remainder of the year, but the program had the awesome task of replacing the man who had spearheaded Colgate's rise to the top just 20 months prior.

The job fell to Don Vaughan, who returned Colgate to their winning ways with a 20-win season in 1995, keeping the team competitive through the remainder of the decade, which culminated with a third NCAA bid in 2000. The recently rechristened "Raiders" (dropping the red) struggled through three straight losing seasons afterwards, but would unexpectedly win the ECAC regular season in 2004 under the guidance of assistant coach Stan Moore, who took the reins for a season while Vaughan served as interim athletic director at Colgate. Moore was named ECAC Coach of the Year for the second time in his career, having previously won the award at Union, but Vaughan returned as expected the following season, leading the Raiders to an NCAA appearance in 2005 and a second Cleary Cup in 2006.

Since then, Colgate has been a formidable opponent for the most part, but has not returned to the upper levels of the league. Their ECAC championship game appearance in 1990 remains the only one the team has ever made, and their NCAA championship game appearance that same year remains the last by an ECAC program.

This year, the Raiders may be in a good position to regain a position in the upper reaches of the ECAC. One thing we should be able to count on from Colgate this season is defense - they return basically every major element from last year's defensive corps, which was about the definition of the league average last year as a young unit.

Offensively, the Raiders lose a star player in McIntyre, but otherwise return basically every significant scorer from last year's third-best offense in the league, especially Day and Smith, the latter of whom was recently a preseason All-ECAC selection of both the coaches and the media. The bottom line for Colgate is that scoring, like the defensive protection at the blueline, should be not only ample, but in plentiful supply.

The question marks lie in net for the Raiders. Long and Evin split time in net last year, and neither put up especially outstanding numbers, practically becoming a drag on the overall team defense. Where RPI seems to be fairly solid in net and has a few issues on the blue line, Colgate is basically the exact opposite. Evin returns as the most experienced netminder on the Raiders' roster and the likely starter, but there are three other options between the pipes, including Evin's classmate, Bryan Bessette, who has three career starts, and a pair of freshmen with promising junior resumes.

Colgate should be a very solid team this year, but they seem to have had RPI's number for quite some time. RPI's longest single-building winless streak in the ECAC is at Starr Rink, and it's not even close. While the Engineers have racked up at least one win in every league rink over the course of the last two seasons, RPI hasn't pulled out the victory in Hamilton since November 9, 2001, going 0-7-1 there in the last seven years. Expect the games between the Engineers and the Raiders in January and February to be tightly fought - and meaningful for the race for the bye.

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