New teams join GNAC, WCHA

The GNAC and WCHA just got larger and more difficult to navigate through for the Seawolves.

That is because three newcomers to the conferences are now competing for the top spot along with them. None of them will be easy opponents by any means, as all bring forth programs with rich tradition in winning.

New to the GNAC this season will be the introduction of the Simon Fraser University Clan. SFU, which is based out of Burnaby in British Columbia, Canada, is the first Canadian university to be accepted into an NCAA sanctioned conference.

They will feature 17 programs within the conference and will do battle with the Seawolves in men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s cross country running, volleyball and men’s and women’s track and field.

To some, the Simon Fraser name may sound familiar since The Clan has historical ties to the GNAC and the members within it.

Before the GNAC was formed in 2001, teams like the Seawolves, Western Washington Vikings and Seattle Pacific Falcons, just to name a few, were members of the Pac-West conference in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).

When 10 members of that Pac-West conference broke off to form the GNAC, Simon Fraser was left to compete in the NAIA and Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) due to the fact the NCAA didn’t accept foreign membership.

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In July 2009, the NCAA finally granted The Clan membership and placed them in familiar territory against familiar faces.

“Basically, we’re just following tradition and our old rivals” Dr. David Murphy said, a second year Athletic Director at SFU. “This has been a great thing for us and we’re extremely happy.”

Due to the high caliber of the SFU athletic programs, look for them to be contenders in just about every sport they participate in.

The toughest may be their women’s basketball team, one in which has won the Canadian National Championships four of the past six years. Even though they lost eight seniors from last year’s championship squad, look for them to still contend with the other GNAC powerhouses such as UAA, Seattle Pacific and Western Washington.

As for the UAA Hockey team, they will face off against two new opponents in the tough as nails WCHA league. Joining the fray are the Bemidji State Beavers and Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks, both of which are building strong programs themselves.

Both schools have very similar athletic departments to the Seawolves in the fact they feature mainly Division II teams in the NCAA but all now share the common denominator of Division I hockey teams in what is widely thought as the top college hockey conference in the US.

The Beavers will look to challenge immediately for the Broadmoor Trophy that goes to the victors of the conference. They are fresh off a season in which they went 23-10-4 and earned a spot in the Midwest Regional in the NCAA Tournament.

A mere two seasons ago as a member of College Hockey America (CHA), Bemidji made a run all the way to the NCAA Frozen Four, a first in their history as a Division I program.

“I think we’ve proven we’re competitive,” Dr. Rick Goeb said, Athletic Director for the Beavers.

The catalyst may have come in the form of Head Coach Tom Serratore. Since his arrival in 2002, he has led the Beavers to four CHA Regular season titles, three CHA Tournament crowns and 151 victories in his eight years at the school.

“He’s done a marvelous job and he really can get a lot out of his players…he’s incredible,” Goeb said.

On top of a new conference to play in, the Beavers and Serratore will get to play in a new barn. The finishing touches are currently being put on the new 185,000 square foot Bemidji Regional Events Center that sits on the edge of Lake Bemidji.

However, the real prize is the acceptance into the WCHA, one not lost upon Goeb.
“It’s a world class hockey association,” Goeb said. “It’s the most competitive conference for college hockey and we’re thrilled to be included.”

Similar praises were to be heard when Nebraska-Omaha Athletic Director Trev Alberts was asked about his UNO Mavericks also gaining entry into the WCHA.

“We’ve long thought the WCHA was the premier league in college hockey,” Alberts said. “We have visions of growing our hockey program into a national power and to do that, you have to join others who have made the same commitment.”

Like the Beavers, Nebraska-Omaha fits right into the footprint of the WCHA nestled into the Midwest US. As opposed to the Seawolves who must take a plane at least five hours to the lower-48 to play road games, UNO can hop on a bus and be at their destination within a few hours.

Also, the Mavericks have distinct advantage in recruiting from the North American Hockey League and United States Hockey League, two elite junior leagues. This is made clear in the Mavericks roster which features 22 of their 26 current players from these two leagues, most of which played their juniors in Midwest towns.

Last season, the Mavericks finished 20-16-6 in the CCHA and gave them their first winning season since the 2006-07 campaign. UNO qualified for the conference tournament as the sixth seed.

They are led by Coach Dean Blais who will begin his second year on the job. However, gaining the support of the Athletic Department ant UNO is something he has no trouble with.

“He’s been great and everything we hoped for,” Alberts said. “He has extraordinarily high expectations, which I like, and is what our department is all about.”

Gone from last year are the likes of defenseman Eddie Delgrosso, who in three years finished with 20-68-88 point totals from the blue line. Those totals rank him 13th all-time in the Maverick’s history books for points scored.

Coach Blais will have a situation similar to UAA in terms of filling holes in the lineup and a large incoming freshman class of 11 new faces.