By Chris Ostrander - Director of Public Relations
An interesting trend developed through the ranks of Division II over the previous decade. As a team established themselves as a national power, they would likely depart for a new challenge in Division I.
Since 2004, three teams have claimed the M2 National Championship and two of the teams have since departed to M1. Oakland claimed the title in 2004 and 2006 before making their move, and subsequently winning the 2007 M1 title. Davenport followed suit after four-straight title game appearances and three-straight titles in 2008, 2009 and 2010. The Panthers also claimed the title in their first year at the M1 level.
With the departure of the two programs there was a collective feeling in the M2 ranks that the title was up for grabs in 2011. Grand Valley State University claimed their first title as they defeated Michigan State, the only other team to claim a National Championship (2005 and 2007) since 2004.
“We came off four trips to the national tournament and several of our players who had been to four national championships and come up empty,” GVSU head coach Mike Forbes said. “We certainly saw [Davenport’s absence] as an opportunity. Our mindset going into Nationals, even if Davenport would have been there, was to give everyone a run for their money.”
GVSU rallied behind an impressive run of 21 games to end the season before rattling off five more victories at the National Tournament. The Lakers were 19-2 to end the regular season, finishing 2010-11 on an impressive 24-2 run to win the National Title. GVSU has the opportunity to defend their title this year thanks to a strong returning core, particularly on defense. While there will be an onus on a group of underclassmen to provide scoring, Forbes has confidence that the blueline will help carry the team.
“We have seven of nine defensemen coming back and we are happy to have our them back,” Forbes said. “They all bring a lot to the table in terms of maturity and playing level. But we have to wait and see who steps up and answers the bell in terms of our freshmen forwards.”
As the 2011-12 season opens, a similar landscape greets the teams vying for the M2 championship. GVSU will enter the season with the proverbial target on their back as teams like Michigan State, Florida Gulf Coast and Siena all look to unseat the reigning champions.
While MSU and FGCU might be favorites to earn a spot in the National Championship – each have played for the title in the past three years – there are numerous teams finding their way into the national spotlight.
Michigan and Miami (OH) finished third and fifth, respectively, in the final rankings. Thanks to a commitment to the success of the programs and strong recruiting, each will likely be in the hunt when the National Tournament rolls around. Both Forbes and Michigan State head coach, Jim Martin cited the improvement in Ann Arbor and pegged the Wolverines as a team to watch.
In fact, the state of Michigan has produced the last eight National Champions. The last non-Michigan school to win at Nationals was Colorado in 2003.
“One of the biggest challenges is that every year the play in division 2 gets better and more competitive,” Martin said. “Now that the regional format has come into play we have seen a much tougher road. It certainly seems like every game we play in Michigan is a tight one.”
Forbes echoed Martin’s sentiment, praising the progress and talent among Michigan’s schools. “Having such great competition only two hours away from us helps. I say, a rising tide rises all ships, and that is what has happened in Michigan. We can take a lot of pride in that as a state. It is a testament to Michigan hockey at this point in time.”
While the state of Michigan is laden with talented teams, there are plenty of powerhouses outside of the Great Lakes State who will be looking to climb atop the M2 mountain. Siena will be looking to improve on a successful 2010-11 campaign. The Saints finished eighth in the final rankings thanks to a balanced attack under first-year head coach, Sean Williams. William Patterson, Eastern Washington and San Jose State shouldn’t be counted out either, all three put together strong runs to finish in the top ten last season.
The M2 ranks are rife with teams who could piece together a run to earn a title. From week one until the National Title game there will be tight games. There certainly aren’t any easy roads throughout the regular season, and the National Tournament never offers a light match-up.
“I always say that battles make for better generals,” Forbes said. “It makes your team stronger and makes you better as a coach when every game is a dogfight. You can’t take any teams for granted when you’re in a competitive environment.”
While departing for M1 isn’t a goal many teams would set for themselves, GVSU bucked the trend this season. Without a defending champion departing M2, the next streak to be ended will be the state of Michigan’s dominance at the National Tournament. There are plenty of teams looking to become the first team since 2003 for outside Michigan to win the title and begin their own run of dominance. A trend that every team is looking to start.