Thursday, October 08, 2015

Underrated Bemidji State Awaits Bulldogs

When Bemidji State sat in college hockey limbo after its old conference -- College Hockey America -- disbanded, the WCHA stepped up and helped out. Admission to the league could possibly have saved a longtime small-college hockey power. Bemidji State had already established itself in Division III and (now largely defunct) Division II before moving to the Division I ranks in 1999.

Tom Serratore then took over for legendary R.H. "Bob" Peters in 2001. It didn't take long for the Beavers to hit the 20-win mark for the first time in Division I (2003-2004 season). The 2009 team made the Frozen Four for the first time as a Division I program.

Since moving from CHA to the WCHA, BSU has had its struggles, but last year was a promising one for the Beavers. Bemidji State opened with a 5-1 win at (!) North Dakota, and later added convincing wins over UMD and Minnesota State to claim the North Star College Cup.

A later win over the Mavericks clinched home ice in the first round of the league playoffs, but Bemidji lost two straight to Ferris State to end its season. Still, an 10-6-2 record after Christmas (13-7-5 after Thanksgiving) showed the program was heading back in the right direction.

"We had really good success the second half of the year," Serratore said. "It's a tough pill to swallow (losing at home in the playoffs), but there's such a fine line between winning and losing. We lost our second game (to Ferris) in triple overtime.

"It was an interesting year. You take a look at our losses, we went through a stretch in November where we lost six straight. We could have gone 5-1, it was just amazing how well we played. It's hard to put a finger on things."

Serratore admits it will be tough to replace big-minute captain Matt Prapavessis, or defensive cohorts Sam Rendle and Sam Windle. He said he "isn't sure" how he will divide the minutes on the blue line this weekend, as the Beavers play in Duluth Friday, then host the Bulldogs at Sanford Center Saturday night.

The Beavers do have some skill up front. Senior Cory Ward leads the way, and is a prototypical Bemidji State 200-foot player. Brendan Harms is back, as is sophomore Kyle Bauman, who really came on late last season. And BSU has the Fitzgerald triplets, best known for the "Baby Geniuses" movie back in the day. Well, now they're pretty good at hockey. Gerry's probably the most explosive of the three, but all three can play an all-zone game and there's certainly a chemistry that exists when they're on the ice together.

In goal, Michael Bitzer is back. All he did as a freshman was post a .929 save percentage and wrestle the job away from Andrew Walsh, who graduated.


Other UMD blogs of note:

Great Expectations (season preview)
Monday Musings (wrap-up of Sunday exhibition win)


The second-half run wasn't enough to land the Beavers in the preseason national rankings, but surely it caught the attention of UMD coach Scott Sandelin. A couple times this week, Sandelin has talked about UMD teams of the past not having enough respect for Bemidji State. Going back to last season, however, Sandelin says this isn't the same BSU program. Before the loss in St. Paul last January, he praised Bemidji for bringing in more and more skill and being a different team -- though still difficult -- to play against.

He doubled down on that this week.

"I don't know that some of the games we've played them that we've respected them enough," Sandelin said. "And that's a bad omen, because if that happens you don't deserve to win.

"Tom's teams have always worked hard, have always been tenacious. Now they've developed through their recruiting more and more skill. I think they're playing a little bit different game with that skill, which is fun to play against. They still have the work ethic, they play well defensively, and they've always seemed to get good goalies."

Now, the challenge for the No. 2/3 Bulldogs is to ignore the preseason hype. Top three in the preseason national polls, consensus pick to win the NCHC, and all the preseason individual honors that have come in are nice. They aren't going to win UMD any games.

21 letterwinners are back for UMD this season. The fewest number of games played by a veteran? 12, by sophomore defenseman Nick McCormack. Blake Young played in 17 games last year. Both would have played more were it not for injuries. Every other returning player has at least 30 games under his belt in these colors. So it's not just about having a bunch of bodies back. They're experienced and battle-tested.

I asked Sandelin if this is the deepest forward group he's had at UMD. I preface this by saying I'm not a fan of doing the "This is just like the 2011 team" bit. No two journeys are the same, no two teams are the same. I don't think it matters that Welinski's path back to UMD can be compared to Mike Montgomery and/or Justin Fontaine before the 2010-11 season. I'm also not trying to compare Cal Decowski to guys like Brett Hammond or Jake Hendrickson.

Sandelin agrees, saying "I felt very comfortable last year with our depth up front. I'm really happy and excited about the other freshman forwards we have in place (Parker Mackay and Billy Exell). Those kids have done a good job and they're going to add some much-needed depth to our team.

"I think some guys understand their roles better, which will hopefully make them better players. I think (this is similar to) the 2005 year, where I thought we had good depth, but this is a little deeper. We've got really good balance and some very good players. I feel the same way in goal and on the back end."

And say what you want about conference realignment (in all honesty, there's been good and bad to it from my perspective), but this weekend is a good thing for college hockey in northern Minnesota. I'm not of the mind that these games mean nothing because points aren't on the line. Actually, I tend to think they might be worth more because of that.

Look at last season for evidence. Why did the NCHC get six teams in the NCAA Tournament? Because the eight teams combined to go 53-25-4 in non-conference play. Colorado College (4-5) was the only team under .500 out of league. North Dakota, Denver, Miami, UMD, Omaha, and St. Cloud State -- the six teams that went dancing -- combined to go 42-17-4. That strong non-conference record meant everyone gained huge points in strength of schedule just by playing league opponents.

Not only that, but people are excited. It's Homecoming at UMD, and we should have a good crowd Friday night. Saturday, Sanford Center will be rocking in Bemidji. Serratore notes that with the nice weather forecast, there's going to be tailgating and some fun happening outside the building, and it'll be packed inside once the game starts.

It's good for the fans, good for the players, and good for the game. Like it or not, Bemidji's fans just aren't going to get amped up for a weekend set against Lake Superior State like they will to play UMD. The fact UMD is so highly-ranked only adds to it.

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