Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Know Your Enemy: Ferris State

The first full weekend series between RPI and Ferris State has likely been in the workings ever since Ferris State alum Seth Appert was named as RPI's 12th head coach back in 2006. Appert told WaP during the 2009-10 season that he'd been working to get his alma mater on the schedule for a while, but he hadn't been able to make the schedules match up properly. Looks like the stars have finally aligned, with Appert set to make his homecoming in October.

Ferris State
Nickname: Bulldogs
Location: Big Rapids, MI
Founded: 1884
Conference: CCHA
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2003
Last Frozen Four: None
Coach: Bob Daniels (20th season)
2010-11 Record: 18-16-5 (12-12-4-3 CCHA)
Series: Ferris State leads, 1-0-0
First Game: January 23, 1998 (Big Rapids, MI)
Last RPI win: None
Last FSU win: January 23, 1998 (Big Rapids, MI)

2011-12 games: October 14-15, 2011 (Big Rapids, MI)

Key players: D Chad Billins, sr.; F Jordie Johnston, sr.; G Taylor Nelson, sr.; D Aaron Schmit, sr.; D Brett Wysopal, sr.; F Eric Alexander, jr; F Kyle Bonis, jr.; F Matthew Kirzinger, jr.; F Travis Ouellette, jr.; D Scott Czarnowczan, so.; F Justin Buzzeo, fr.

Here's the story with Ferris State: it's a state school named after its founder in a city roughly the size of Plattsburgh and a student population about the size of UAlbany (larger than the town's permanent population) about 50 miles north of Grand Rapids. It does not appear as though the founder, former Michigan Governor Woodbridge Nathan Ferris, is related to prominent RPI alumnus George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., inventor of the Ferris wheel.

Varsity hockey at Ferris State began in 1975, when the school was a member of the NAIA. They played four years under the NAIA banner. In 1978, as the school prepared to move from the NAIA to the NCAA, the Bulldogs joined the nascent CCHA, at the time a small regional conference with only Ohio State and Bowling Green as full Division I schools, finishing in last place as an associate member in the 1978-79 season but rebounding the next year.

The Bulldogs had two very successful seasons in their second and third seasons in the CCHA, winning 20 games in each year, including 26 in 1980, which would be a school record for more than 20 years. Both years, they finished a respectable third in the six team league.

1981, however, brought significant changes to the CCHA, growing its stature as a league but putting the Bulldogs largely behind the eight-ball with some very tough, powerful programs joining up. Most notably, Michigan and Michigan State joined the league, although further down the road the additions of Notre Dame and Miami proved equally daunting. While the addition of these top programs added prestige to the league, it also made things difficult for some of the smaller schools.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Ferris State frequently struggled to keep up in the newer, more powerful league even as Lake Superior State started its dynasty in the late 1980s. Despite the hiring of Cornell coach Dick Bertrand in 1982, the Bulldogs endured 10 consecutive losing seasons during the 1980s.

Under Bob Mancini in 1991, the Bulldogs, led by future NHLers Dave Karpa and John Gruden, snapped out of their funk with a 21-win season, finishing 3rd in the conference for the first time since the 1981 expansion. But Mancini only stuck around in Big Rapids for two seasons, leaving in 1992 to take over at Michigan Tech.

Mancini's replacement, Bob Daniels, brought some much needed stability to the program, for the most part keeping the Bulldogs at least fairly competitive in the CCHA even if not always able to overcome the conference's beasts. The Bulldogs won 21 games in his first season of 1992-93, and while they would not be able to put together another winning season until 2000, the truly poor seasons in Big Rapids were fewer and more far between than they had been in the 1980s. It was during this stretch that two goaltenders who eventually became D-I head coaches, Seth Appert and Jeff Blashill, were roommates at Ferris State.

Ask any Ferris State fan what their best season was and the answer is going to be unanimous: 2003. Led by Hobey Baker finalist Chris Kunitz, who has since produced a solid NHL career, the Bulldogs climbed to the top of the CCHA, finishing on top of the regular season table for the first time in school history, besting Michigan by six points during a 22-5-1 CCHA season. Though they lost the CCHA Championship Game to the Wolverines, the Bulldogs still gained their first NCAA tournament appearance, coming just a game away from the Frozen Four as they defeated North Dakota 5-2 before falling 7-4 against a Minnesota team that was not only the defending national champions, but were on their way to becoming the first back-to-back national champs in 30 years, and were playing on their home ice to boot. They finished the year with an impressive record of 31-10-1.

The team has yet to return to that lofty pinnacle. The following season, Ferris State plummeted to 10th in the 12-team CCHA, and did not register another winning season until 2008. More recently, the Bulldogs have been generally solid while not quite approaching the top of the CCHA again. There is recent cause for optimism, however. In 2010 and 2011, the team registered consecutive winning seasons for the first time since the CCHA's expansion, making three winning seasons in the last four. Both years, they were a bubble team for a second NCAA bid.

A major reason for the Bulldogs' relative success in the last two years, unfortunately for them, has graduated: goaltender Pat Nagle, who anchored a Ferris State defense that was among the Top 10 defenses in the nation in each of the last two seasons. That defense could take a step back without him, but at the same time, the returning defensive corps is chock full of experienced blueliners (including three prominent seniors and five total), most of whom help out the Bulldogs offensively as well.

With Nagle gone, the goaltending duties will likely fall to senior Taylor Nelson, who split time with Nagle in 2009 and 2010 before being relegated to backup for much the same reason Bryce Merriam didn't see much action in 2011 - the other goaltender had the team on his back.

Offensively, the Bulldogs didn't have any individual players put up striking numbers - leading scorer Travis Ouellette returns for his junior year with just 21 points last season and the only Bulldog to reach double digits in goals with just 10, but while Ferris State didn't have individuals lighting the lamp with abandon, as a team they spread the scoring around very well: 14 different players had at least 10 points, including six defensemen. That tends to require opposing teams to focus less on stopping individuals and more on a game plan that can stop anyone.

This series in Michigan, besides being a homecoming for Seth Appert, should prove to be another good challenge for RPI's young forwards. It's not exactly the easiest road trip for fans (even diehards) to make, but this should be a couple of interesting games that could help decipher exactly what the Engineers are capable of this season.

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.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Pouring It On

OK, WaP offseason break over.

Tomorrow begins our 21-part Summer Cooler series called "Know Your Enemy." Every Wednesday, we will focus on one of the Engineers' opponents in the upcoming year - 10 non-conference opponents, and 11 ECAC foes. Tomorrow's entry is one of only four teams in all of Division I that the Engineers have never faced before.

In the meantime... enjoy this little giggler, spotted by eagle-eyed friend of the site James Lauser in downtown Albany yesterday. Amazingly, this is a real thing, not Photoshopped in the slightest. Honest.

Consider this the first ever Without a Peer caption contest! Feel free to try your hand at captioning this picture, just leave a comment on this posting. The winner(s) will be revealed next week.