Youthful Wildcats will have to grow up fast

By Derek Berry

It has been said that youth brings enthusiasm to a hockey team. While
this is true, youth cannot make up for experience. That’s something the
Northern Michigan University Wildcats lost a lot of after last season.
In fact, three of its five leading scorers from the 1999-2000
campaign-Roger Trudeau (17 goals, 8 assists, 25 points), Bryan Phillips
(6-14-20) and J.P. Vigier (9-11-20)-are no longer there.

Can the team be just as solid with the players they have coming back?
Head coach Rick Comley, one of the most honest coaches in college hockey
or any sport for that matter, is not sure experience equals solidity.
“I’m not so sure those two things go together,” says coach Comley, in
his 25th season with NMU and the only coach in their history. “There’s
no question with a senior goaltender and six returning defensemen that
we can be solid. The question is will we be?”

Indeed a very good question. Suppose one of those players goes down?
Suppose one of them isn’t performing up to their potential? What then?
That’s where, if your Northern Michigan, you hope that the experience
you gain from each game and each practice adds to the players
repertoires…in a hurry.

“It’s something we work on in practice, trying to give all of the
freshman and sophomores more opportunities, chances and ways to get
experience,” says NMU team captain and senior defenseman Mike Sandbeck.
“We have to keep everyone involved, because everyone has good days and
bad days. We have to keep everyone focused.”

Focus will be no problem in goal, with Marquette native, senior Dan
Ragusett (16-9-3, 2.15) minding the nets. Ragusett has plenty of
experience and has been through a lot, even getting a few more starts
than senior Duane Hoey last season. Now, Ragusett will be looked upon
as the man.

“Our goaltending is particularly strong this year,” says Comley. “With
Dan Ragusett back there, it helps us feel pretty confident.”

Even youngster Chris Gobert, he of the sophomore variety and a member of
the all-rookie team last year, believes the goaltending situation is
strong. And he should know, after having played against talented Ryan
Miller (MSU) in juniors.

“I think our goaltenders are all very strong,” says Gobert, referring to
Ragusett, junior Kevin Hulsey and freshman Craig Kowalski (Clinton
Township). “Our guys are just gonna have to adjust to whoever is
playing net that night.”

The defense is in pretty decent shape too. NMU’s defense, much like
MSU’s WMU’s, is unique in that it can chip in offensively. Guys like
Sandbeck and Jimmy Jackson (Marquette) back on the point generate plenty
of assists. Seniors and even juniors seem to comprise the defense a
little bit more for Comley’s team.

Whether on defense or offense though, Comley and his players agree that
team quickness and speed are definitely a big part of the Wildcats
system. It’s why they can skate with just about anybody in the country.
“I think we have good team quickness,” says Sandbeck. “Once we get that
going, the offense and goal scoring will come together.”

With so much youth on offense, that will be a question mark. Yes, there
are Chris Goberts on this team, but not everyone is that talented.
Comley, in fact, raves about his youngster, whose star shone brightly in
his first CCHA season.

“Chris is one of the most talented offensive players I have ever seen,”
says Comley. “He has the god-given ability to score goals.”

Don’t be surprised to see Gobert and perhaps a Jimmy Jackson on the
power play, which is going to need some work. “Our special teams,
particularly our power play, are going to be keys to our improvement,”
says Comley. “We’re not going to score easy enough on the power play
through the season.”

NMU was fairly average, but still dangerous, on the power play last
season (ranking 7th overall in the league). Comley is hoping to boost
that total this season. It’ll be tough.

“The power play is good…it’s a little slow, but it’s coming along,” says
Sandbeck. “We’ve got good talent, so I think we can pull it together.”
The penalty is a better story for the ‘cats. Messing with NMU’s penalty
kill is like messing with Texas. You just don’t want to do it.

“Our penalty kill, like everyone else’s, is important and another big
key,” says Comley. “I think we’re looking pretty good there, but again,
we can’t give up too much, because we won’t be able to score as much.”
Sandbeck agrees adding that the defense and goaltending will really make
the kill stand up. The offensive players will have to adjust at times
and play a more defensive style, especially against the big guns like
Michigan, Michigan State and Lake Superior.

Which brings us to the all-important schedule. NMU sits in the unique
position (way up in Marquette to be exact) where travel can become
tiring, restless and a big burden. Comley makes no bones about it.
“The travel is hard and I don’t like it,” says Comley. “But, it’s
something that we have to do, being who we are.”

For traveling so much, which NMU has done in its first few years back in
the CCHA, it has done surprisingly well. The Wildcats finished fourth
last year and were virtually in the league title chase with a month to
go in the season.

But, the young Wildcats also are in the tough cluster this year in their
schedule having to play U-M, MSU and LSSU four times each. Ouch. That
can either be very helpful or hurtful to them. NMU will see Lake
Superior and Michigan State in November, with a visit from Michigan in
early December. The last part of the season offers no breaks either,
with MSU, U-M, Miami and LSSU comprising the schedule in the final
month. Tough.

But, Sandbeck takes a positive mental attitude toward all of the bus
trips on the road that the Wildcats make (yes, everything but Alaska is
by bus).

“We know the trips are long and grueling, but it helps us stay focused
and bond as a team,” says Sandbeck.

Plus, you have guys like Gobert who traveled a lot in juniors and get
used to all of that time on the road.

Comley knows his team bonds on the road, but he’d prefer not to have
those bus rides.

“I still don’t like those (bus rides),” he says.

Hopefully though, those bus rides will make the Wildcats a contender
before the March playoff swing comes around. Either way, it’ll be a
good learning experience for a young team.

Questions about NMU in 2000-01:
*Will all of the senior losses kill them?
*Will Dan Ragusett be able to save games for them?
*Will the high-flying, speedy team take even the top dogs (U-M, MSU) by
*Will penalty kill and power play be balanced enough?