February 3, 2012

First Things First: Three FSU Teams In The Lead

Note: The story below is courtesy of the Big Rapids Pioneer and appeared earlier this week in both the printed and online versions of the publication.  For more information, please visit www.bigrapidsnews.com.

FIRST THINGS FIRST
Three FSU Teams Proving Presason Polls Wrong

By Martin Slagter
Sports Editor

Look who's in first place ... it's the Ferris State women's basketball team.

Yeah, that's true. But look who else is in first place ... it's the Ferris State men's basketball team.

Again, that's true. But there's yet another local collegiate program in first place ... it's the Ferris State hockey team.

Take a second and think about that. Not only is Big Rapids the home of three teams that are in sole possession of first place in their respective division and conference races — none of them were expected to be there.

The men's hoops team lost four starters to graduation and had to replace GLIAC Player of the Year and All-American Justin Keenan. As a result, they were picked to finish third in the GLIAC North in preseason polls.

Expectations for the women's team were even lower, with the Bulldogs picked to finish fifth out of seven teams in the GLIAC North. FSU is off to a 10-1 start to the conference season, including two wins over the division favorite Michigan Tech.

Then there is the Bulldog hockey team, which swept Michigan State in leapfrogging four teams to move into first place in the CCHA. They were picked to finish ninth in the league in the preseason coaches poll after losing arguably their two best players in Zach Redmond and Pat Nagle.

So what does this prove? It could show that nobody knows how to predict a conference champion.

But more than that, it shows that the Bulldogs have been this year's overachievers in not one, but three sports this winter.

That's what makes the results all the more intriguing. Many — in Big Rapids and beyond — have to admit they didn't see this coming. The men's and women's basketball team had talent, but seemed to have that "they're still a year away" label ready before the start of the season.

The hockey team lacked proven goal scorers and were replacing defensemen and a starting goaltender that were the backbone of the team that finished fifth in the CCHA a season ago.

Inside the numbers
 
Each team, however, has found a way to win.

One common thread in each team's success — defense — is at the center of their success.

The Ferris women lead the league in scoring defense in conference play, giving up just 55.6 points per contest.

The Ferris men rank fourth in the league in scoring defense at 63.7 points per game.

The men's hockey team ranks first in the CCHA in scoring defense, allowing just 2.25 goals per game in climbing up to sixth in national polls.

But statistics only tell half of the story.

Each team has made its way to the top of the standings with a unique set of challenges, yet found a way to overcome those obstacles more than halfway through the conference schedule.

The women's basketball team has a great player in Sarah DeShone, but others have stepped up to make the Bulldogs one of the most balanced scoring rosters in the league.

The men have eight freshmen on the roster. Not only have those freshmen stepped into roles that were reserved for seniors a year ago — they have filled those roles admirably in helping the Bulldogs create a new team identity. Combined with the leadership and production they've gotten from upperclassmen Kenny Brown, Jerrell Sanders and Dontae Molden, the Bulldogs clearly have been the surprise team in the GLIAC North.

The hockey team has mended its midseason woes on the power play and penalty to turn those deficiencies into strengths.

Looking ahead

Now, a lot has to be settled.
The men's basketball team still needs to travel to take on Findlay, Wayne State and Grand Valley State, while hosting the GLIAC's best team, Hillsdale. This is a young team that will be tested in its last eight conference bouts.

The women also have challenges on the horizon, hosting Ashland and Lake Erie, while traveling to Findlay — all top tier conference teams.

The Bulldog hockey team is in what might be the most competitive collegiate hockey conference in America this season, so it goes without saying that predicting the outcome of the next eight games would be premature, especially with talented teams like Western Michigan and Notre Dame on the schedule.

Can all of these teams win conference or division titles this season? Absolutely. The Ferris women (10-1 in conference play) seem to be the most likely candidate to take home hardware this season with a cushion separating them and the division's second place team Michigan Tech (8-4) — a team it already swept this season.

The men's basketball and hockey team have tougher schedules and stiffer competition on the horizon, but both have shown the capability to compete with the league's best.

Predicting how each of these teams will finish is, of course, fruitless. Coaches and the media obviously sold the Bulldogs short in preseason polls.

Ferris State hockey coach Bob Daniels said this before the start of the season, and it remains one of my favorite quotes I've ever received from a coach:

"It's a great tool for conversation, but it's nothing that we use for motivation," Daniels said of preseason polls back in September. "It kind of comes across as lame if you're looking to use that as motivation. There are enough reasons out there for wanting to win."

Daniels, along with Ferris State basketball coaches Tracey Dorow and Bill Sall obviously weren't paying too much attention to preseason expectations. They all currently sit in first place in the conference in their respective sports.

No preseason poll can change that.

Martin Slagter is the Sports Editor for the Pioneer. He can be reached at (231) 592-8363 or mslagter@pioneergroup.com


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