By Michael Caples –
ANN ARBOR – As if the start of the Big Ten conference wasn’t enough, Red Berenson said he’s always excited when he has a big freshman class coming in to his program.
Berenson has 10 fresh faces in his line-up this fall.
“The energy that a big, young class coming in, they’ve got the coaches looking forward to seeing what they can do, and I think it’s good for the rest of the team,” Berenson said. “Even like last year, we had a small freshman class, but they did a lot to help our team. And then the Big Ten season, there’s a little bit of mystique there, a little bit of curiosity of what that’s going to bring, but I think for the most part, it’s going to be all positive for our fans, our players, our coaches, it’s really going to change a lot.”
The word “rollercoaster” seems like an appropriate word to describe the Wolverines’ season. After a No. 3 preseason ranking in the USCHO poll, Michigan dropped out of the Top 20 by December. Yet things started clicking for the Wolverines down the stretch, and a season that looked like it would be a disaster ended a few goals away from a CCHA championship.
Much of that late-season success came from goaltender Steve Racine, who emerged as the Wolverines’ clear starter and led them to sweeps of Northern Michigan and Western Michigan and a win over Miami in the CCHA playoffs.
Berenson said he plenty of confidence in his goaltender this fall.
“Yeah, absolutely, no question,” Berenson said. “When he came in last year he had that hip surgery in the summer, and so he couldn’t do some of the off-ice stuff. And then there was kind of an excuse when he wasn’t feeling good on the ice or playing good. And then we didn’t know how ready he was to play at this level. Well, now I think it’s a whole different ballgame. It’s been two years of the routine of school and hockey and off-ice training, and he’s had the ups and downs, but fortunately he finished on a high. Ninety or 100 percent of the game is mental for a goalie, but he’s got a lot more mental confidence going for him this year than he did last year.”
Racine said that a summer of training will only help as he moves into his sophomore season.
“Yeah, this summer was great,” the native of Williamsville, N.Y. “It’s definitely the hardest I’ve worked in the summer. Fitness-wise, I’m much stronger than I was, especially at the beginning of last season, and I’m really excited to get going here.”
The incumbent starter – and back-ups Luke Dwyer (Ann Arbor), Adam Janecyk (Ada) and Zach Nagelvoort (Holland) – won’t have the supporting cast he had last season, however. As noted above, major changes cover the Wolverines’ roster. Gone are defensive studs Jacob Trouba (Rochester), Jon Merrill (Brighton) and Lee Moffie, plus forwards A.J. Treais (West Bloomfield) and Kevin Lynch (Grosse Pointe).
Yet the Wolverines’ freshman class might be one of the best in the country. Headlined by forwards J.T. Compher and Tyler Motte (St. Clair) along with defensemen Mike Downing (Canton) and Nolan De Jong, the 10-member rookie class already has the veteran players taking notice.
“I like this class a lot,” captain Mac Bennett said. “There’s a ton of them, there’s ten of them, but I think we’ve got a ton of depth. We need these guys to play a huge role, considering they are a majority of the team. I like what I see, I like the defensemen, I like a lot of the forwards. I think we’re going to be in good shape.”
Berenson said he wants to give every player in his freshman class the opportunity to prove themselves in game situations.
“You want to play well, but you want to see what everyone can do,” Berenson said. “Like I said, we’ve got 10 freshmen, and I want to see how they play and how they fit in. I expect that some of them are going to be impact players. We’re going to need them to be.”
If the freshmen see the playing time Berenson is suggesting, they will have a steep learning curve. The Wolverines’ non-conference schedule looks like as daunting as their Big Ten slate of games. After one preseason tune-up with the University of Waterloo, the Wolverines welcome No. 4 Boston College to Yost, then head out for road contests with RIT and No. 13 New Hampshire. When they return to Ann Arbor, they will have No. 19 Boston University and No. 1 UMass-Lowell arriving for more big non-conference showdowns.
Bennett said he’s not worried about the new crop of freshmen handling a demanding non-conference schedule.
“No, not at all – these guys have all played junior before, they played more games last season than they probably will this season,” Bennett said. “They’ll be fine.
“Me being an East Coast guy, I’m biased, I love it. I get to go back to UNH and my parents won’t have to take a plane to come see me play, which will be great. But I think our out-of-conference games, the strength-of-schedule is just so good, and if we can get off to a bright start early, we’re setting ourselves up for success.”