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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Western Michigan '07-08 Season Preview

Broncos charge into 2007-2008 season

by Tom Morelli/WMU Beat Writer

Western Michigan University’s performance in 2006-2007 (18-18-1, 14-13-1 CCHA) can best be described as the tale of two halves.

The Broncos struggled to find some consistency in the beginning, heading into the holiday season with a 6-9-1 record. Perhaps during the winter break, head coach Jim Culhane made a New Year’s resolution to win more games because that’s exactly what his team did. Western Michigan experienced a sudden surge of momentum to close out the season with a 12-9 run.

The Broncos were highly successful in part because of freshman sensation Mark Letestu, who led the team with 24 goals and 46 points. After receiving CCHA Rookie of the Year accolades, Letestu left Western Michigan to sign a free agent contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Other significant losses from last year are forwards Brett John, Kevin Labatte, Jason Moul and Paul Szczechura, defenseman Ryan Marhle and goaltender Daniel Bellissimo.

With several players having moved on, it begs the question: Which Broncos team will show up in 2007-2008?

In his ninth year with the program, Culhane will be working with a young roster, which includes eight freshmen. Two incoming recruits – forwards Max Campbell (New York Rangers) and Ryan Watson (Florida Panthers) – were taken in June’s NHL Entry Draft and join defenseman Chris Frank (Phoenix Coyotes, 2006) and forward Matt Clackson (Philadelphia Flyers, 2005) as the only current Broncos to be drafted.

Ryan Watson is the younger brother of current Bronco Cam Watson.

Who will be leading the way for Western Michigan this season is still up in the air, as Culhane will decide on his captains after Saturday’s Brown and Gold intrasquad scrimmage.

Junior forward Jeff LoVecchio returns as possibly Western Michigan’s greatest scoring threat (19-15--34), and was named an All-CCHA Pre-Season Honorable Mention.

Taking care of business between the pipes is sophomore Riley Gill, who won the starting goaltender spot from Bellissimo in the middle of last season. Gill looked like a seasoned veteran for the Broncos, posting a 2.79 goals-against average in 23 games, including four shutouts.

Unlike previous years, Western Michigan won’t have to jump into the conference schedule to begin the season. The Broncos will open the season at home Oct. 19-20 against Bentley College, followed by a road series against Niagara University the week after.

Culhane hopes the non-conference games will help fine-tune his team before CCHA play begins.

“I like the way our schedule opens up this season – I’m a big advocate of non-conference games,” said Culhane. “Our league is so competitive from top to bottom, so you have to be ready every night.”

Western Michigan will head off to Burlington, Vermont for a December tournament, facing off with Quinnipiac on Dec. 29 and the winner of Vermont/Holy Cross the following night.

Another highlight on the schedule includes a home-and-home series with defending NCAA champions Michigan State on Feb. 15 and 16.

While last season lies in the the past, Culhane wants his team to pick-up from where they left off. He’s instilled a blue-collar mentality onto his players and believes that team chemistry will be their greatest asset for the upcoming campaign.

“I’ve told my players that I’m very proud of the work they’ve put in,” Culhane said. “We had a great off-season in which we strengthened both our bodies and minds. For us, I think we need to bring a lunch pail approach to how we play.”

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