Preseason expectations from outsiders are high for this year’s UW-River Falls men’s hockey team, but Steve Freeman, the team’s head coach, said his teams are used to dealing with the demands of big expectations.
The Northern Collegiate Hockey Association’s (NCHA) preseason coaches poll predicts that the Falcons will place second in the seven-member conference behind only a St. Norbert College team that has won back-to-back NCAA national championships. D3hockey.com has UWRF ranked No. 14 in their preseason top 15 poll.
“We have high expectations for ourselves every year. I think we’re going to have a real strong hockey team,” said Freeman.
Last season, the team won the regular season WIAC championship. It is their third WIAC title in the past five seasons.
Freeman said that it helps that players coming into the program know that there is a certain level of expectations for them to live up to.
“There’s a long, rich tradition of success and winning here at UWRF. There is pressure on the coaches and players, but it’s a good kind of pressure. That’s what competitive players want, a chance to win championships,” said Freeman, who has been coaching for 17 years.
He said that the winning atmosphere is created by the veteran members on the team.
“It comes a lot from the older players. Realizing that developing the consistent effort that you have to have to win, it starts in practice, and it carries over to the games,” said Freeman. “We’re working on getting some real structure in our game while getting new players on the same page.”
The Falcons have eight seniors on this season’s roster including the team’s leading goal scorer from last year, forward Geoff Shewmake.
Five out of six starting defensemen from last season’s team are also returning.
Another player is junior goalie Scott Lewan, a 2012 All-NCHA selection.
“Really, that’s the key to the whole thing,” said Freeman. “He’s a very important player to us. He takes a little bit of the pressure off of everybody.”
A main theme this year for the Falcons is team speed. Freeman said that this level of team speed didn’t just happen this season; it has been years in the making.
“That’s been kind of a theme in our recruiting the past couple of years. Assistant Coach Bob Ritzer has done a great job on the recruiting trails for us. Our team will be very fun and entertaining to watch.”
This will be the final season in the NCHA for the Falcons as they will leave the conference and play in only the WIAC after this season.
While the WIAC champion isn’t guaranteed an NCAA tournament bid like the NCHA champion is, Freeman said he thinks that the WIAC champion will be in the running for an at-large bid most years.
The Falcons will begin their season this weekend with two home games.
They play Finlandia University Friday, Oct. 26, and Marian University on Saturday, Oct. 27. Both games start at 7:05 p.m at Hunt Arena.