BLADES OF STEELE
Blue Devils' hopes high despite player losses, tough schedule
By BEN KIRST/OBSERVER Sports Writer
Smart money had the Fredonia State men's ice hockey team finishing somewhere near the back of the State University of New York Athletic Conference last season.
Hope no one bet the rent on that one.
The 2004-2005 Blue Devils dropped their opener against Potsdam in the annual SUNYAC Challenge on Oct. 22 and would not lose again until they fell 4-2 at Geneseo on Jan. 28. Over this 98-day stretch, Fredonia State posted a 13-0-3 record, outscored its opponents 79-40 and knocked off each of its seven conference rivals.
Led by shifty sophomore forward Matt Zeman (20 goals, 21 assists, 41 points), former NCAA Division I netminder Rick Cazares (13-6-5, 2.88 goals-against average, .900 save percentage) and an electric group of penalty killers (nine shorthanded goals), the Devils climbed as high as seventh in the NCAA Division III men's ice hockey rankings.
The magic ran out during Fredonia State's second go-around with its SUNYAC foes. The Blue Devils posted a 2-2-3 record against conference opponents that dropped the squad into third place and a playoff draw against Cortland. The Devils came within 12 seconds of elimination at Steele Hall before earning a difficult series win over the Red Dragons, and Geneseo abruptly ended Fredonia State's Cinderella season the following week.
Hungry for redemption, the Blue Devils - host of the SUNYAC Challenge on Friday and Saturday - returned to campus this semester physically prepared for five months of polar warfare in one of the most competitive conferences in the country.
''When we did our testing a few weeks ago,'' Fredonia State Head Coach Jeff Meredith said, ''almost every guy on our team went up in all five (conditioning) tests. They really put in their work.
''We want to be a top team, a nationally respected team, (but) our own league is filled with these teams. We're going to have to earn our keep every day.''
The Front Lines
The Blue Devils outscored their opponents 101-80 in 2004-2005, and 86 of those goals are coming back. Bolstering the unit will be senior captain Tom Briggs, who missed 10 games with injury and never reached top form in 2004-2005.
''He's a workhorse,'' said Meredith. ''If there's a bigger and stronger forward in the league, I want to see it.''
The offense is led by Zeman, who spent much of last season among the nation's top scorers. The crafty junior will be joined by classmate Kraig Kuzma (13-18-31), a powerful physical presence with a sniper's eye; senior Jim Gilbride (10-12-22), a tough two-way player with a flair for the dramatic (four game-winning goals); and sophomore playmaker Neal Sheehan (4-18-22). Utilitymen Joe Muli (7-5-12), Kyle Bozoian (11-10-21), Scott Bradley (4-1-5) and Steve Greenberg (3-5-8) add the grit that has been the trademark of Blue Devil hockey.
Fredonia State will suffer, however, from the loss of sophomore forward Chad Berman. A medical condition has ended the career of the hard-nosed winger, who collected four game-winning goals during a promising freshmen campaign.
''Chad was tremendously well respected by the team and his coaches,'' Meredith said. ''Even though he was a freshman last year, he was a real leader. To lose somebody like Chad casts a cloud over the locker room, but to be successful, we will have to deal with adversity. Over the course of a season, we will have to deal with a lot of adversity.''
On the blue line
The graduation of defenseman Chris Wells, a 103-game veteran, would create a gap on any squad. Add the loss of key blueliners Brian Kolesar and Nick Malina, each of whom left the program to pursue other options, and that hole threatens to become a crater.
A young crop of blueliners will need to be ready to fill the gap. Junior Don Jaeger saw action in 27 games last season, and sophomores Evan DiValentino and Steve Albert logged heavy minutes. After that, the ranks get a little green - sophomore Noah Hamilton saw limited action in 2004-2005, and the next three defensemen on the depth chart (Colin Sarfeh, Jeff Sylvester and Kurt Hogard) are freshmen. The Blue Devils managed to win last season with two frosh defenders in the regular rotation, and the learning curve will need to be quick for the newcomers once again.
To be effective, the Fredonia State defensemen will have to help themselves. DiValentino and Jaeger spent a combined 120 minutes in the penalty box, and the unit, as a whole, was whistled for 87 infractions. To be fair, the backliners were not the only Devils with penalty problems - Bozoian logged 79 minutes, while Kuzma was tagged with 48 and Zeman 44 - but the team will be hard-pressed if the parade to the box continues.
''We led our league in penalties (in 2004-2005),'' said Meredith. ''We're not going to win if we do it again. We've got to get those down Š that's been a real point of emphasis.''
Between the pipes
Senior Rick Cazares came to Fredonia State in 2004-2005 as a junior transfer from Michigan Tech and started 24 games, recording 13 wins and stopping 90 percent of the shots he faced. That would make him a lock for the starting job this season, right?
''Lock'' may be a bit strong. For all his success, Cazares is being pushed by talented junior Rob Stanley (2-0-0, 1.91 G.A.A., .939 save percentage) and Swiss senior Simon Maignan (1-0-0, 3.00 G.A.A.).
''Rick had a great year last year,'' Meredith said, ''and Rob is an excellent goaltender. And Simon is one of our best athletes - he's in amazing shape. He might be one of the best-conditioned goalies ever to play at Fredonia.
''I know we're not playing a 60-game season, but I think they will each have their time. We'll have room to spread the minutes around.''
Fredonia State is not going to sneak up on anyone this season. The core of the 2004-2005 squad remains intact - Wells and fourth-line forwards Max Catelin and Riley McTaggart were the lone seniors on that 16-6-5 team. The loss of Berman stings.
The Blue Devils may have a different look than in years past, however. Fredonia State's bread-and-butter has long been its suffocating defensive style, but in 2005-2006, the team will turn up the attack.
''We've tried to initiate more offense so far in our preseason and our practices, but not at the expense of our defensive end,'' Meredith said. ''It's a bit of a balancing act. I think right now, we're trying to figure out where that balancing act lies. We've been a defensive punching bag before Š (but) we've got more skill right now than we've had in a long, long time. Does that translate into relentless Fredonia hockey, with great forechecking and aggressive backchecking? Are we able to still be that great defensive team while opening things up offensively?''
The Devils will need to be. By virtue of its SUNYAC membership, Fredonia State will play a schedule as challenging as any Division III team in the country. The early USCHO.com Division III polls have rivals Oswego, Geneseo and Plattsburgh ranked among the top 15 in the nation. Potsdam, Brockport and Buffalo State - teams who drew blood from the Blue Devils last season - are ready to improve on disappointing 2004-2005 showings.
Fredonia State will face stiff non-league competition as well. On Friday, Oct. 28, the Blue Devils will travel to De Pere, Wisc. to battle St. Norbert, the second-ranked team in the country. St. Norbert has won the four consecutive Northern Collegiate Hockey Association regular season titles and reached the NCAA quarterfinals last year.
Fredonia State will also tangle with the dangerous Utica Pioneers, a team that beat ECAC West rival and NCAA championship contender Manhattanville two out of three times in 2004-2005.
At the very least, it should be an interesting winter at Steele Hall.
''I'm optimistic,'' Meredith said. ''Cautiously optimistic. I want to see it for myself.''
Ben Kirst is an OBSERVER sports writer. Comments on this story may be sent to email@example.com.
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