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There is an ongoing theory about college hockey, that if you recruit reasonably well, and you are able to keep your players for four years, chances are you are going to be a conference or even national contender.
The world of college hockey has spun a little bit in its orbit the last 10 years or so, because nowadays teams are recruiting more with an eye toward the various U.S. and Canadian junior hockey teams, where players can play until they’re 20 and then head off to college as older and more mature freshmen. Particularly when compared to the fuzzy-cheeked 18 and 19 age freshmen of years past.
The UMD hockey team was a prime example of all this during the past season. They had accumulated a good mixture of veteran and younger players, but they hadn’t been hurt too bad by losses to pro hockey. The most notable was goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo a year ago, when he signed a pro contract after his sophomore season, coming from Finland and playing for the junior team in Cloquet.
As things turned out, this was a perfect, star-crossed season for the Bulldogs. Out of three freshman goaltender candidates, all three looked promising, and Hunter Miska won the job and then evolved into one of the best goalies in the country, carrying UMD all the way to the NCAA championship game.
It helped that up front, UMD was led by senior long-term linemates Dom Toninato and Alex Iafallo, while another spirited senior in Kyle Osterberg provided a lot of fire. And on defense, the Bulldogs were particularly blessed, with four big, skilled and swift puck-rushers in Carson Soucy, Brenden Kotyk, Willie Raskob and Dan Molenaar all were seniors, and sophomore Neal Pionk and freshman Nick Wolff had fantastic seasons.
By having so many top-notch seniors, it helped UMD play with great poise and develop fully into the potent national unit they became. The question is, what’s next?
True, the best part of having a lot of key seniors is that year should be a good one. The flip side of that coin is that a year from now, all those seniors will be gone. So coach Scott Sandelin faced a tough task to come up with three new scorers that are of similar potential to fill in for Toninato, Iafallo and Osterberg.
He faced an even larger challenge to come up with the right defensemen to replace seniors Soucy, Kotyk, Raskob and Molenaar.
But wait! There’s more. Hunter Miska, who stood out as a freshman goaltender, got a chance to sign with the Phoenix Coyotes of the NHL and decided to leave UMD after only one season.
Before the dust settled, Pionk, who was often the top Bulldog defenseman, made a key decision after talking with the coaches at length and has decided to pass up his last two years at UMD and will entertain offers from NHL teams.
There are good reasons for Miska and Pionk to make those somewhat controversial choices. First, Miska could play even better next year as sophomore goalie, but if the replacements for the four senior defensemen take a while to develop — as they undoubtedly will — his statistics could take a tumble. It’s not fair, but a lot of scouts and management people in the pros put a lot of stock in those stats. That makes signing now, for a team that isn’t rich in goaltending depth, while his value might be the best it’s going to be.
Same with Pionk. An aggressive, hustling, gambling defenseman, it became low-risk whenever he wanted to gamble with a partner like Kotyk or Raskob. But if the new ‘D’ take some time, Pionk could be caught on more gambles and find himself being a less-effective standout — even if he’s the cornerstone and catalyst of the new crop of defensemen. So he, too, can make the most of his personal circumstances and check out the best available franchise to settle with.
Both Miska and Pionk played enough junior hockey before coming to UMD that they are older, veteran players. Despite being only freshman and sophomore, they are hitting age 22. By being that old, both are past the draft age for the NHL. In the older days, observers sympathized with players who missed being drafted. Now, however, it’s a tremendous asset. By not belonging to one club, Miska could pick his offer and he chose to go to Phoenix.
Pionk has impressed every scout who watched him, and at 6-0, 190, he’s big and strong enough to back up his roaming, pinch-from-the-point ways. Every team needs young, fresh, quick and aggressive puck-carrying defensemen, but those who combine those assets with great instincts are rare, and that’s what Pionk has. So right now, he can listen to all the offers and pick whichever one he wants. That opportunity probably would still be there a year from now, but they are there now, for certain.
Sandelin has matured as coach, and turned into an outstanding one. Among his assets are poise, and the thought of losing such important players meets only with a shrug. He and his staff have done their work recruiting skilled replacements, and no matter how many and how skilled the departures are, he knows the replacements are available and the Bulldogs will be back as a challenger next season.
Winter sports are over at UMD, but spring sports are nearing their peak. This weekend will give fans and casual observers the chance to spend a couple days on campus and see what there is to see.
First, the annual fund-raising spring football practice game will be held Friday night at Malosky Stadium, with a chance to see what next fall’s Bulldogs will look like. That starts, of course, with coach Curt Wiese’s selection process for replacing departed quarterback Drew Bauer — his four-year coach-in-QB-clothing.
But come back Saturday and head over to Bulldog Park, adjacent to the football stadium, for a doubleheader with UMD’s men’s baseball team taking on Minot State in a Northern Sun doubleheader starting at 1:30 p.m.
Meanwhile, across Campus just beyond Kirby Student Center and up amid the dorms, the UMD women’s softball team will be playing Southwest State of Minnesota in a UMAC doubleheader of its own, starting at 2 p.m. I’ve found that you can watch some of one, then hustle over and watch some of the other, and then choose which one to finish watching. Both have high entertainment value.
Then on Sunday, Sioux Falls comes to Bulldog Park to face the UMD baseball team in a doubleheader beginning at noon, and the UMD softball team will take on Minot State in another doubleheader at 12 and 2.
St. Scholastica’s softball team plays a few blocks west, on Kenwood Avenue and College, but they are out of town this weekend. We caught up to the Saints last weekend, when they swept a doubleheader from Martin Luther.
The Saints, fresh from splitting at Gustavus Adolphus in nonconference play, won the second game then swept Bethany Lutheran 2-0 and 3-0, then came home to sweep Minnesota Morris 8-0 and 4-3, before also sweeping Wisconsin-Superior 4-1 and 9-1.
They made short work of Martin Luther, shortening both games to five innings as Chrisi Mizera pitched with Heidi Shelton’s relief for a 9-0 first game, then Vanessa Kohl threw a 1-hitter in the 8-0 second game, running the Saint Scholastica winning streak to nine straight.
Kohl, a junior from Duluth East, got some hitting support from former Greyhound teammate Marjaana Dailey, who doubled to lead off the last of the fifth and spark the rally that reached the 8-run threshold.