Oakland’s club hockey team off to a strong start this season

By Colleen Miller

In every successful season, there is typically a defining moment for a team — a game that can redirect the course of a season and allow it to set sail. For the Oakland University club hockey team, that moment may have occurred on Friday, Nov. 20 at the Onyx Ice Arena.

Let’s set the scene: The Grizzlies were taking on the third-ranked Liberty University Flames, in a game they were the underdog. With a minute and 10 seconds left in a game tied at three apiece, Jordan MacDonald attempted a cross-ice pass to Mike Simpson. The puck redirected off a Liberty defenseman, fooling the goalie, and slid into the back of the net. Oakland took the lead. As the clock hit zero, the Onyx erupted in roar of jubilation. OU won the game, and set the tone for another victory against the Flames the following evening, capping an improbable sweep and letting the country know that they had arrived.

Oakland currently sits at 15-4, ranked 13th in the American Collegiate Hockey Association coaches poll and eighth in the computer rankings. They have recently gone on a six-game winning streak.

This season has been a polar opposite from last year.

At the beginning of the 2008-09 season, Oakland entered ranked in the top five and were expected to compete for national championships, despite having a young team. In the midst of a lot of roster turnover, they had a hard time finding chemistry and they struggled all season long.

This season the Grizzlies opened up ranking 18th. There really wasn’t anywhere for Oakland to move but up. New head coach Jeremy Bachusz enforced a rededication to conditioning, discipline and unity.

“We have all come in better shape. On the ice, everyone is accepting their role. We’ve got all the talent in the world … we are playing as one,” sophomore defenseman Jacob DeSano said.

Asking members of this Grizzlies team, many of them cite a newfound sense of family off the ice that has helped them considerably. The players say they’ve put aside their egos that allegedly plagued last year’s roster. Senior captain Cody Austin said he doesn’t look inward at his own leadership abilities but to the team as a whole.

“We have a lot of leaders on this team. It’s not just the guys who wear the letters on their jerseys. They all make a big impact on the atmosphere right now,” Austin said.

Freshmen Adam Novack has been one of this season’s most welcome surprises, though his performance was not unexpected by everyone. Bachusz had confidence in the young newcomer.

“We knew Novack would contribute right away coming from juniors,” he said.

Novack came from the Metro Jets, a program that has fed Oakland with a lot of its talent, including goalie Alex Pikunas and leading scorers Jordan MacDonald and Jesse Worrell.

Novack’s presence has been on the first line with Kevin Kranker and MacDonald. Kranker has rebounded from what was seen as a sophomore campaign that fell below expectations.

MacDonald is leading the Grizzlies with 16 goals and 27 points. He lost around 30 pounds in the offseason and his teammates have taken notice of the improvements in his game this year.

“MacDonald is 10 times more confident and a lot faster. His ability to bear down helped him put the puck in the back of the net, where he struggled with that before,” Kranker said of his linemate.

The Grizzlies’ defense has also been much improved along with its goaltending. The ascension of first defensive pairing of Jacob DeSano and Jason Maltese has had a lot to do with the team’s success.

“We’ve got seven solid defensemen. You can put any of us out there and we’ll shut down anyone’s top line,” DeSano said.

Oakland will need strong defense and a continuation of their high-scoring top line to keep moving up in the ACHA rankings.

The Grizzlies have one of the toughest schedules in the country, and will play a pair of rematch games against Liberty in February. Also in February, the team will face perhaps its biggest test in a three game series against archrival Davenport University.

The ACHA takes a scheduling break for the majority of December, in light of the holidays. Oakland recognizes that they need to keep the momentum going through the break. For junior defenseman Dennis Capa, the formula to staying sharp is simple.

“We have to skate hard over break and stay in shape. We have to be ready,” Capa said.

Oakland is a team that has seemingly become unified. Words like “confidence” and “family” are being spoken all around this team. The players appear to be buying into the team-first philosophy that Bachusz preaches.

The Grizzlies seem to be back on a course to where they are most comfortable and familiar — in the ACHA tournament, contending for national titles.