National champion Illinois hockey aims for a repeat



By Tony Donisch

Undefeated. Conference Champions. National Champions.

You could say that’s an OK season.

And the goal is to win it all again come Sept. 26 as the Illini hockey team takes the ice for the 2008-2009 season.

Illinois skated to a perfect 38-0-0 last season en route to capturing the CSCHL (Central States Collegiate Hockey League) Conference Championship and ACHA (American College Hockey Association) Men’s Division I National Championship. In addition to winning two giant cereal bowls, it was etched in history as the second National Championship hockey team at the University.

The team racked up its fair share of end-of-the-year honors as well. Head coach Chad Cassel won his second Coach of the Year Award since 2005, and goaltender Mike Burda, defenseman Brad Hoelzer, and forwards Drew Heredia and Jason Nemeth made the All-American teams.

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All but a given after their dominant season, the Illini start out as the team to beat, as they sit atop the ACHA Division I preseason poll by

“Now, everyone wants a piece of us,” Burda said.

Yet that won’t change its mindset, as the team is focused for another title.

“We’ve just got to take it one game at a time,” junior forward Pierce Butler said.

Three of the four All-Americans return; however, captain and team goals leader Drew Heredia has graduated. He led the team with 29 goals in 38 games played last season.

In addition to Heredia, the team will go on without Johnny Liang and Alex Park – the trio contained three of the five top goal scorers from last year, leaving big shoes to fill on offense.

Senior forward Jason Nemeth will play a big role in easing the impact of the turnover. He led the team in points last year with 66 in 37 games.

“Jason’s a great player and our best setup guy. He scored a lot of huge goals for us last year,” Cassel said.

The Illini will look to captain and senior forward Jordan Pringle, who will need to provide leadership to a team that has 10 new players out of 27.

According to Cassel, out of these new players “there will be a number that step in.”

“We have a little bit of experience but that will come around,” he said. “Everyone is expected to play a role on the team.”

Playing between the pipes this year will be a trio of goaltenders: juniors Mike Burda, D.J. Kohler and newcomer Peter Filip.

The first team All-American Burda will return as the top goaltender in the ACHA, with a 1.4 goals against average and 93 save percentage last year.

“Goaltending is huge,” Cassel said. “We have three strong goaltenders, and I have confidence in all three of them.”

Cassell predicts it will be even harder to score on the Illini goalies this season – a scary thought for opponents.

The defense took a hit from graduation last year as well; Wicklin and Schmitt contributed to the defense in a big way and now those spots need to be filled.

“(Our) strength is depth. We have a lot of highly skilled skaters” Cassel said.

Butler and senior Andy Betourne will team up with Hoelzer to pack a punch in back.

“Along with me and Hoelzer, I think we have a good core of guys,” Butler said.

Looking ahead at the schedule, Cassel admits “we have a lot of tough games to play on the road. It’s a little more difficult than last year but a good challenge.”

Regardless of the tougher schedule, with a roster featuring three returning All-Americans, strong goaltending and valuable depth, Illinois will once again have a good chance to venture deep into the postseason.

“We should be right in the mix and the favorite,” Cassel said.

The Illini will start defending their National Championship at home in a two-game set against Michigan State on Sept. 26 and 27. Last year, the Illini defeated the Spartans, 5-2 and 5-4.