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State of the Union: Progressing toward NCAA's elite

Thursday, 11.03.2011 / 3:00 AM / On Campus

By Bob Snow - NHL.com Correspondent

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State of the Union: Progressing toward NCAA's elite
Known better for its education program than its hockey, things are beginning to change as the Dutchmen come off a 26-win season and are pushing for an NCAA Division I top-10 ranking.
They rolled into Durham, New Hampshire, last Friday night ranked No. 11 in the country for an early battle with the host and perennial power UNH Wildcats.

No, it wasn't Minnesota or Denver -- or Michigan or Miami.

Rather, the Union Dutchmen from upstate Schenectady, New York, whose education program is ranked the 29th best for a college or university by Forbes Magazine.

For most of Union's hockey history, being ranked anywhere near No. 29 among the 58 Division I teams would be a good season.

No sweet home for Alabama

The hammer finally fell last week for the University of Alabama-Huntsville Chargers, with the formal announcement that the program will cease Division I play at the end of this season.

Inhibited with the geographic location and associated travel costs for them and visiting teams to accommodate the team in the current and now evolving changes in league alignments, the Chargers nonetheless put a quality program on the college-hockey map, making two trips to the NCAA Tournament in 2007 and 2010.

Add the lack of support by the UAH upper echelon for a Division I program -- despite alumni support pledges -- and the momentum toward dissolution intensified.

Nashville Predator and 2010 Hobey Baker winner Blake Geoffrion, who starred at Wisconsin, has two brothers -- forwards Brice and Sebastian -- on the current Chargers roster.

"Personally, I just know how hard my brothers have worked to try to keep that program alive and give them a chance to win every night. I feel badly for all of those guys." Geoffrion told the Nashville Examiner. "They could have had other opportunities to go to other schools possibly, and now all of a sudden they do not have a program there."
 
The writing on the wall, however, began when the four-team College Hockey League was disbanded three years ago, and UAH was left out in the cold to play an independent schedule after Air Force and Niagara were invited to join Atlantic Hockey and Bemidji State took an offer to join the WCHA.

Then the CCHA dismissed a Charger bid for entry two years ago when it had room in its 11-team unbalanced league.

The final nail in the UAH coffin came last summer when three months of maneuverings brought the biggest realignment in NCAA history, beginning in the 2012-13 season. The CCHA will disband, while a new National Collegiate Hockey Conference is established, and the current WCHA is completely revamped.

Throughout all these changes -- and with many options for a safe and secure landing spot for Huntsville -- not a word came forth about accommodating UAH.  
 
Alabama-Huntsville plays just 12 home games against Division I competition all season; the last two at the Von Braun Center are Dec. 30 and 31 when Mercyhurst and the Chargers close the curtain on a program that deserved a better shake.

Congratulations to head coach Chris Luongo, assistant coaches Gavin Morgan and Tim Flynn, team captain Curtis deBruyn, alternate captains Jamie Easton, Tom Durnie, Sebastian Geoffrion, and the entire Chargers roster for playing these past two seasons with class and dignity.

-- Bob Snow
Not anymore.

Coming off an eight-year rebuilding effort by coach Nate Leaman and staff, the Dutchmen have improved the past four years from 15 to 19 to 21 to 26 wins. Last season's 26-10-4 mark propelled the program to a highest-ever No. 4 rank, a first-ever ECACHL league title, and a first-ever NCAA tournament appearance (a first-round loss to eventual champion Minnesota-Duluth.)

The Dutchmen went 14-1-1 in their final 16 regular-season games to clinch the league title, while leading the nation in power-play efficiency at 29.5 percent, and allowing just 2.1 goals per game for a second-best team defense in the nation.

Leaman, named Coach of the Year for that effort, then left Union for Providence College, one of the 10 head-coaching changes entering this season.

Union quickly named six-year assistant Rick Bennett, credited with constructing the Dutchmen defense, to succeed Leaman.

"It all happened so fast," Bennett told NHL.com about the transition, "but the stuff I learned over six years watching Nate and how successful he was made it very smooth."

Bennett, who starred, ironically, at Providence before a 10-year pro career that included 15 NHL games with the New York Rangers, understands his biggest challenge.

"My job is to keep this program going even further," he said. "Other people come in and maybe the program is at the bottom and they have to build up. Everyone has a different headache, but mine's a very good headache -- more about a focus on day by day.

"We have to keep the recruiting going, we lost a few quality guys last year and I have to step in and do it even better than the past."

One was Keith Kinkaid, Dryden Award recipient as ECACHL Goaltender of the Year, who became the first-ever Dutchman to make an NHL roster when the Devils called him up recently from Albany to back up Johan Hedberg while Martin Brodeur was on injured reserve.

"We like to think the [players will commit to four years]," Bennett said after Friday's 2-1 loss in OT, in which Union outshot New Hampshire, 38-23. "We're getting more and more pro scouts at our games, but that's a good thing. If you want a quality program, you'll enjoy those calls and NHL people coming to see your players play the game. That's how a program gets elevated."

At 3-1-3 after his first month on the job, Bennett has a complement of upperclassmen to make the transition and keep the focus on another run.

Kelly Zajac, whose brother Travis starred at North Dakota before going on to play for the Devils, is closing in on 100 career points, a key piece to connect Union's stingy defense with the offense.

"Coach Bennett recruited me," Zajac said about landing at Union. "He brought a lot to the table. They told me this program was turning corners and I wanted to be a part of it. The steps taken the past few years is proof of that. It was no fluke last year."

Why Union and not North Dakota or other higher-profile programs for Zajac?

"I got the opportunity to be a first-line center and Union is a top-notch school, so leaving early was never an option," said the economics major. "I wanted to create my own path and not follow in any footsteps. It was a great decision I made in my life."

Rick Bennett's Dutchmen went 14-1-1 in their final 16 regular-season games to clinch the league title, while leading the nation in power-play efficiency at 29.5 percent. (Courtesy: Union College)
Senior captain Nolan Julseth-White echoed Zajac's sentiments.

"It's a combo of the education, the success of the players brought in and the success of the program," said Julseth-White, an articulate managerial economics major with a math minor.

The captain's focus?

"We keep a pretty tight locker room; it was a seamless transition," Julseth-White said. "Losing to Duluth was not a consolation; we wanted to go all the way. We're looking to get back there this year. We can skate with anybody in the country. It's a huge challenge to exceed last year, but we'll take it game by game -- take care of our league first, and move on from there."

"We're a defensive team first; that's our staple," sophomore Mat Bodie, who scored the lone goal against UNH, said about Bennett's master plan. "That will be throughout the year."

"Zajac and White are good leaders, and Jeremy Welsh is coming into his own," said Bennett, who will lean on these upperclassmen, along with Wayne Simpson, Kyle Bodie, Shawn Stuart, Ryan Forgaard, and Greg Coburn.

NHL.com's Top 10

1. Boston College 7-1-0
2. Colorado College 4-0-0
3. Michigan 6-1-1
4. Western Michigan 5-0-3
5. Minnesota 7-1-0
6. Merrimack 6-0-0
7. Notre Dame 5-2-0
8. Ferris State 6-2-0
9. Lake Superior State 7-1-0
10. Denver 3-2-1
But he also knows his young tandem in goal of Troy Groseneck and Colin Stevens needs to mature, along with a few others.

"I'd like to see Max Novac jump in and contribute, and Dan Carr and Josh Jooris," Bennett said. "On D, we have Bodie and some other very talented young players.
 
"The future is bright, but they need to realize it's going to get harder."

On Campus Clips

The six Ivy League teams began league play last weekend under school policy. ... The only other overall undefeated teams are Western Michigan in the CCHA at 5-0-3, Merrimack in Hockey East at 6-0-0, and Colorado College in the WCHA at 4-0-0. ... Leading scorers nationally are Minnesota's Erik Haula with 7-10-17 in eight games. Notre Dame's Anders Lee leads in goals with 10 in seven games and teammate T.J. Tynan in assists with 12 in seven games. Jeremy Langlois at Quinnipiac heads the power-play leaders with five PP tallies in eight games, and Joe Howe of Colorado College leads in both goals-against average (0.90) and save percentage (.964). ... The first-place Lake Superior State Lakers are off to a 7-1-0 start in CCHA play, their best since 1989-90, when they opened with a 10-1-0 record en route to a 33-10-3 season. They won it all in 1992 and 1994.
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