Division III hockey sees change this seasonCOLLEGE HOCKEY: NCAA Division I college hockey wasn’t the only landscape to undergo an upheaval this year. The smaller schools will find out just how much impact the creation of a new conference will have on them as the 2013-14 season kicks off this weekend.
By: Rick Weegman, Duluth News Tribune
NCAA Division I college hockey wasn’t the only landscape to undergo an upheaval this year. The smaller schools will find out just how much impact the creation of a new conference will have on them as the 2013-14 season kicks off this weekend.
Five Wisconsin state schools — including Wisconsin-Superior — pulled out of the men’s Northern Collegiate Hockey Association to form the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, a five-team league that, unlike the NCHA, will be without an NCAA Tournament automatic bid.
That left St. Scholastica, one of two private schools in the NCHA, temporarily without a home.
“I don’t know if there were hard feelings, but it was very surprising; it all happened pretty quickly,” Saints coach Mark Wick said. “It always has been a little contentious between private and public (universities).”
St. Scholastica and St. Norbert were wooed into the 10-team Midwest Collegiate Hockey Association, which then changed its name to the abandoned NCHA.
“It started with DI making its changes and we followed suit,” UWS coach Dan Stauber said. “We wanted to make sure we were with like schools and level the playing field.”
Due to financial constraints, the WIAC doesn’t allow schools to pay for recruits’ visits or allow coaches to scout opponents. St. Scholastica and St. Norbert were not subject to those and other policies that gave them a perceived advantage nor, according to Stauber, were they willing to change.
“That’s the misconception, everyone felt we didn’t want them,” Stauber said. “People don’t realize we were playing with two sets of rules: NCHA rules and WIAC rules.
“We asked them to abide by our rules and they didn’t want to and that created a lot of friction. It’s not like we didn’t want them; we wanted them to follow our rules and they said ‘No.’”
The teams play each other only once this season in a nonconference game Nov. 23 at Mars Lakeview Arena. Future schedules are yet to be determined, though both coaches are committed to maintaining the border rivalry.
“I’d be stupid not to schedule Scholastica,” Stauber said. “To play a home-and-home series every year would be the best (scenario). And it’d be crazy for (Wick) not to schedule us in nonconference.”
“From location, rivalry, cost, it certainly does make sense,” Wick said. “We certainly want to keep that rivalry. It’s good for the community and the fans like it, so we want to continue that.”
Wick says time will tell if the new NCHA compares to its previous incarnation.
“The old NCHA was very competitive, and I think the new one will be the same way,” he said Tuesday, three days before the Saints open the season at new conference foe Milwaukee School of Engineering. “It’s going to be interesting to see how it all shakes out.”
St. Norbert, a three-time Division III national champion and three-time runner-up, MSOE, Adrian College and St. Scholastica are expected to vie for the league title.
How the new league factors in when NCAA at-large berths are handed out in March is anyone’s guess.
“You almost need a math professor on your staff to figure out the best way to position yourself,” Wick said.
The Saints’ strengths range from a top line of senior Paul Marcoux (7 goals, 11 assists, 18 points in 2012-13) centering brothers Brandon (17-11–28) and Dylan Nowakowski (6-18–24) to a goaltending tandem of senior Colin Rundell (3.12 goals-against average, .904 save percentage) and Tyler Bruggeman (3.41, .884).
Though the Saints began the season poorly, they closed with wins over St. Norbert, eventual national champion Wisconsin-Eau Claire on the road, a playoff sweep over UWS and a one-goal loss to St. Norbert in the Peters Cup semifinals.
“Last year was a tough year, not what we expected,” Wick said. “The second half was the way we felt we should have played all year.”
After starting the season well, the Yellowjackets struggled after failing to earn a point in six games against Eau Claire and Norbert. The result was an 11-14-2 record and lower-echelon league finish.
Senior forwards Pat Dalbec (15-12–27) and Joey Massingham (10-14–24) return as does senior goalie Drew Strandberg (2.88, .869). Depth in goal is solid with the additions of Dayn Belfour, son of Hall of Famer Ed Belfour and a Nebraska-Omaha transfer, and Duluth Denfeld graduate Zach Thompson.
Eleven freshmen dot the UWS lineup.
“We’re going to need the freshmen to contribute early,” Stauber said.
Saints add third Waidacher sister in new-look NCHA
The women’s hockey landscape changed as well with the creation of the WIAC, but St. Scholastica did not need to find a new home.
The Saints remain in the seven-team NCHA, which has retained an automatic NCAA qualifying spot yet is noticeably weaker without the four Wisconsin schools.
“It impacts us mostly in the strength of the league, top to bottom,” Saints coach Jackie MacMillan said. “There’s no question those four schools were very good opponents for everyone in our league. Without them, it makes our league a little bit weaker, but we still have some very good teams.”
Coming off a 14-10-4 season, the Saints expect to compete with St. Norbert and Adrian in the top half of the league. Bringing in a third member of the Waidacher family shouldn’t hurt.
Junior Nina Waidacher (16-24–40) led the Saints in scoring and returns with her older sister, Monika (13-12–25), and newcomer Isabel. All three sisters hail from Arosa, Switzerland, and are candidates to play for Switzerland at the 2014 Winter Olympics.
“Whether one, two or three of them are gone, it’s going to impact that February part of our schedule,” MacMillan said. “But the good news is we’ll get them back for the playoffs.”
MacMillan said adding the youngest Waidacher adds a new dynamic to the team, though she isn’t saying if they will all play on the same line.
“She’s an amazing, well-skating forward with a tremendous hockey IQ,” she said. “She has chemistry with her two sisters — there’s no question they know where each other is on the ice at all times.”
MacMillan says this is the deepest squad she’s had since the creation of the program and a couple of additions on defense is a bonus.
Sophomore Ivy Smith, a transfer from Division I St. Cloud State, and 5-foot-11 freshman Madison Smith from Edmonton, Alberta, join All-America junior Alex Blair (7-11–18) on the blue line.
Peters, Schultz return to lead UWS in WIAC debut
Superior joined Eau Claire, Stevens Point and River Falls in forming a four-team women’s WIAC this fall.
Though the conference doesn’t have an automatic qualifying berth, UWS coach Dan Laughlin minces no words in describing the strength of the league.
“From top to bottom — though there are only four of us — there’s no tougher league in the nation,” he said.
Tenth-ranked UWS hopes to do its part. The Yellowjackets are led by a deep group of forwards and strong goaltending in senior Shanley Peters (2.09, .910).
Junior Dani Schultz (12-21–33), named to the All-NCHA first team, and senior Kerry Mayhew (12-8–20) are the top returning scorers.
“Our forwards, in general, are as strong as they’ve ever been,” Laughlin said.
UWS has such good attacking depth, in fact, that Laughlin has switched seniors Teal Crosson and Kelsey Firkus from forward to defense.