Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Know Your Enemy: Minnesota State

Given the long history of RPI hockey, it's no surprise that the Engineers have played practically every team out there to be played in Division I hockey. In fact, coming into the 2011-12 season, there are only four current D-I teams that RPI has never competed against on the ice. Canisius is the only eastern team on that list, and there are three western schools: the CCHA's Northern Michigan, and two teams from the WCHA - Nebraska-Omaha and Minnesota State. That list shrinks by at least one next year, as the Engineers and Mavericks are set to do battle for the first time during opening weekend in Troy come October.

Minnesota State
Nickname: Mavericks
Location: Mankato, MN
Founded: 1867
Conference: WCHA
National Championships: 1 (1980, Division II)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2003
Last Frozen Four: 1991 (Division III)
Coach: Troy Jutting (12th season)
2010-11 Record: 14-18-6 (8-16-4 WCHA, 11th place)
Series: First meeting

2011-12 games: October 7-8, 2011 (Troy, NY)

Key players: F Michael Dorr, sr.; F Justin Jokinen, sr.; D Cameron Cooper, sr.; G Phil Cook, jr.; D Tyler Elbrecht, jr.; F Eriah Hayes, jr.; F Eli Zuck, jr.; F Chase Grant, so.; F Max Gaede, fr.; D Mat Knoll, fr.

Hockey is something of a religion in Minnesota; witness the five different Division I hockey programs in the state despite having only one fully Division I school (the University of Minnesota). Thus, it's not terribly surprising that a school with over 13,000 undergraduates - third most in the state behind Minnesota and St. Cloud State - would be one of those schools playing at college hockey's highest level.

Varsity hockey at Mankato State, as the school was known between 1957 and 1999, began at the Division II level in 1970 under head coach Don Brose, who guided the team for 30 seasons. Although the Mavericks had a slow first season, Brose had the team winning games by year two, as Mankato State picked up a 15-2-1 record in the 1970-71 season, still the highest winning percentage in program history. All told, the Mavericks put up six winning seasons in their first eight years as a team from 1970 to 1977.

In 1978, the NCAA started the Division II national championship, the first separate championship from the Division I title that dated back 30 years. The Mavericks earned a place in the first six tournaments, falling to the eventual champions from Merrimack in 1978 and then to Lowell in the 1979 national championship. They punched through for their first - and thus far, only - national crown in 1980, defeating Elmira College 5-2 in the championship game (in Elmira) behind a 42-save effort by goaltender Steve Carroll. The title win was the Mavericks' 30th win of the year, the only time they have ever reached that number in the win column.

When the Division II championship was first suspended after the 1984 edition, the Mavericks moved to Division III, where they immediately made a pair of NCAA tournament appearances in 1985 and 1986. Three straight national tournaments from 1990 to 1992 included an appearance in the 1991 national championship game, where Mankato fell to Wisconsin-Stevens Point, 6-2.

In 1992, the school announced their intention to move the program to Division I, where they hoped to join fellow Minnesota State College and University (MnSCU) school St. Cloud State, but their request was denied by MnSCU, setting off a three-year battle to elevate the program. In the meantime, the Mavericks returned to Division II following the return of the national championship in 1993. There, they suffered their first losing season in nearly 20 years, and in 1994 dealt with a second consecutive losing season for the first time in program history.

In late 1995, MnSCU finally relented and allowed Mankato State to move to the Division I level, which they did the following season as an independent for the 1996-97 year, playing a hybrid schedule with Division II and III teams. Shortly after that inaugural D-I season, the school submitted a bid to join the WCHA, and a unique arrangement was set up inviting the team to participate in the WCHA tournament (as the highest seed) in 1998 despite being an independent team.

That set up was repeated in 1999, when the Mavericks pulled off a 3-2 overtime upset over WCHA regular season champions North Dakota before dropping the next two of the best-of-three (losing Game 3 10-0).

The Mavericks became full-fledged members of the WCHA in the 1999-2000 season, Don Brose's last behind the bench in Mankato (which also coincided with the school's name change to Minnesota State, Mankato). MSU had an impressive first full season in the league, winning 21 games (still the most for the school in Division I) and making a trip to the WCHA Final Five.

Just 11 days after Brose's last game, his long time assistant and former player Troy Jutting was named the team's second official head coach. Jutting led the team to another winning season in 2001, and in 2003, MSU reached the national tournament in just its fourth season as a full WCHA member, falling 5-2 to Cornell.

Since that NCAA tournament appearance, things have not been outstanding in Mankato, however. The Mavericks lost a school record 24 games the following season, and have had only one winning campaign (2008) since. A few talented players, including current NHLers David Backes, Ryan Carter, and Tim Jackman have come through Mankato recently, but as a team they have been struggling in the always difficult WCHA.

Last year, the Mavericks put up a decent mid-season, going unbeaten in 9 of 11 straight games between late November and mid-January, but four of the eight wins in the stretch came against American International and UMass-Lowell, two of the worst teams in the country. The other four were fairly solid, however, including a home sweep of Minnesota and a title in Notre Dame's Shillelagh Tournament. Once February arrived, however, the team sputtered down the stretch, finishing their last 10 games with a 3-7-0 record.

Pretty much every aspect of Minnesota State's game last year could be described as "pedestrian." With the exception of a rotten power play, the team didn't really excel or significantly lag in any facet of the game. Their top scorer last year was a senior defenseman, but they do bring back the only two players on the team to score more than 10 goals, Dorr and Hayes (Jokinen and Grant added 9 and 8 markers respectively). Cook's numbers in net could also be described as pedestrian, they weren't eye-poppingly bad but they weren't lighting the world on fire, either.

Nonetheless, when the Mavericks arrive in Troy in October, they should provide a solid early-season test for the Engineers. RPI's young offense will be met with MSU's young defense, and Bryce Merriam will be tested by some veteran forwards who have spent their college careers firing pucks at some of the best goalies in the country in the WCHA. Besides the obvious intrigue factor of the Engineers playing a team they've never seen in the program's history and the draw of the first regular season home weekend, this series should provide a great weekend of hockey.

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