Young talent and leadership put the Royals among MIAC leaders
Sports | Jenny Hudalla
Junior forward Colin Mayer is one of the Royals' offensive leaders this year with three goals, five assists and a +3 plus-minus. | Photo for The Clarion courtesy of Bethel Sports Information
After several disappointing seasons, the Bethel men’s hockey team has forcefully reclaimed the success of earlier years. Quickly becoming a top contender with a 5-1 conference record, the Royals are tied atop the MIAC standings with the St. Thomas Tommies, who are ranked No. 15 nationally.
Bethel struggled last year, losing its first five games and finishing with a win percentage of .360 and an 8-15-2 overall record. In fact, the Royals have not finished above the .500 mark since the 2007 season, when they dominated the conference with an 11-4-1 MIAC record.
However, the team’s young talent and senior leadership have earned it considerable success thus far, giving Royals fans hope for a prosperous season. Bethel handily beat Saint John’s 3-0 in the season opener and went on to sweep the Gustavus Gusties, a conference powerhouse then ranked No. 5 in the nation.
“Any time you sweep a MIAC team, it’s a big deal, because it’s always a close race to get a playoff spot,” said head coach Charlie Burggraf. “We did it in a convincing way and capitalized on a lot of opportunities.”
The Royals' defense has been a key ingredient in their formula for success. Led by senior Jon Crouse, a three-time All-MIAC selection, the defense has allowed only 2.12 goals per game in conference.
“The entire defensive unit has been on the same page all year,” Crouse said. “The last three years, our goals against per game has not been good, so it is a matter of wanting to get Bethel back to a respectable goals against per game, which in turn will hopefully translate into more wins.”
Although the young offense has struggled to stay consistent, many players have contributed to playmaking, including senior Jack Paul and freshmen Brock Raffaele and Mitch Hughes. Having implemented a quick style of play, the offense has no trouble creating scoring opportunities.
“The chances to score have been there, we just haven't finished,” Paul said. “I think we’re working hard and outworking teams, we just haven't been able to reward ourselves by putting the puck in the net.”
Thanks to their impressive play, the Royals received votes for the USCHO.com Top 15 poll and are among the top five unranked teams. This is the first time in recent history that Bethel has been on the verge of being nationally ranked. Burggraf, while pleased, wants to make sure the attention doesn’t go to the players’ heads.
“We need to keep it in perspective,” he said. “Let another man praise you and not your own mouth. We’re going to acknowledge it and get back to work. We appreciate the recognition, but we’re going to stay focused.”
After dropping two hard-fought games to No. 14 Milwaukee School of Engineering on Nov. 23-24, the Royals redeemed themselves the following weekend against the Hamline Pipers, winning both games by a combined score of 10-4.
According to Crouse, the team will focus on putting more offensive pressure on the opponent while maintaining their physical style of play in the second half of the season.
Although the team is both driven and concentrated, it still lacks the reliable play needed to earn a playoff berth. However, Burggraf’s pragmatic coaching style combined with the Royals’ raw talent and dependable defense have the potential to propel the team into postseason play.
“If you don't set out to win a national championship every year, you have already sold yourself and your team short,” Crouse said. “I’m not sure if people around school or around the league realize how dangerous we can actually be.”
While taking home the NCAA trophy might seem like a long shot, Burggraf knows that this is the best team the Royals have seen in many years.
“We’ve had some good play, and we’ve got a really solid defensive core,” he said. “It’s tough to score goals in the MIAC, so we need to get the puck in the net more often. We have a lot of potential. We just need to harness it."