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December 3, 2009 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

Blais-ing a New Trail

Hoopla Behind It, UNO Focuses on This Season

by Courtney Lewis/CHN Reporter

Nebraska-Omaha made headlines over the summer by luring Dean Blais back to college hockey. Then the Mavericks burst out of the gate with a 4-0-2 record in October.

But as they stumbled a bit in November, slipping in the national rankings and the CCHA standings, the hoopla of the Blais hiring and UNO's decision to move to the WCHA next season wore off, and the Mavericks receded into the background of national chatter.

Now, with a much-needed sweep of Western Michigan, and with two conference series left before the holiday break, UNO is looking to get back on a roll.

The Mavericks (7-4-3, 4-4-2-1) secured hard-fought 4-3 and 4-2 victories over the Broncos last weekend for their first back-to-back wins since the opening weekend. They’re tied with Ferris State for sixth in the CCHA, five points behind leader Miami.

They visit the Bulldogs next and then play at Alaska before closing the first half with a nonconference home-and-home series with Minnesota State.

“At the start of the year, you’re looking for your team to perform well — win or lose,” Blais said. “But now you need points to keep yourself in the race.”

When Blais took over for long-time coach Mike Kemp, the players were well aware of his reputation and record of winning at North Dakota.

“I was very excited, knowing the status and stature of Coach Blais and all the things he’s accomplished,” senior Jeric Agosta said. “I knew that he’s a really good coach. You have to respect a guy who’s won two national championships and other league championships.”

Blais brought with him an up-tempo, puck-pursuit philosophy.

Agosta, for one, has fit right into the Mavericks’ new playing style.

The 5-foot-9 forward from Ruthven, Ont. had eight points last season, including four goals. His career high was nine points as a sophomore. It took him all of nine games to reach eight points this season, and he currently has five goals and five assists.

Agosta was voted a captain before the season started, and in addition to a new leadership role, he saw the chance to take a bigger offensive role.

“Coming in after five years of junior, I felt like I was ready to make the next step and could contribute offensively,” he said. “And in my first three years, I got put into a role as a more defensive forward, so I had that frame of mind.

“I knew (Blais’) style of game from word of mouth, that he likes guys who have speed, who play up-tempo. And I said to myself, ‘Hey, that’s the style of my game. I play an up-tempo game.’ I just told myself to make the best of it, take it as an opportunity and run with it.”

Junior forward Rich Purslow and defenseman Eddie Del Grosso, a senior, lead the team with 11 points, and sophomore John Kemp has 10.

The Mavericks were ranked as high as 10th early in the season and are now 18th.

They’ve finished in the middle of the CCHA the last few years, losing in the conference quarterfinals, and haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 2006. They’re looking to become a conference and national contender.

“Those are some of the goals we all made this year,” Agosta said. “We sat down in a meeting with Coach Blais and the coaching staff. And they asked us, ‘What are your goals this year?’ We want to win a CCHA championship, make it to the tournament, win a national championship. Those were the expectations.”

To get there, Blais said they need more reliable goaltending. Senior Jeremie Dupont came into the season as the Mavericks’ only goalie with collegiate experience, but has struggled at UNO throughout his career despite coming in as a lofty recruit. He’s played eight games and was a healthy scratch the second night against Western Michigan. Redshirt freshman John Faulkner has appeared in 10 games.

Blais said he’s still waiting for one of them to emerge as the No. 1.

“We need to be more consistent at that position,” the coach said. “You never want to criticize your goaltender; sometimes there’s just bad luck or the puck bounces. But soft goals now and then can’t be happening if you’re a contender.”

And coming off of consecutive wins, Agosta said the Mavericks as a team need to keep up that consistency.

Agosta said that means “coming to the rink mentally prepared and focused and going hard every single night. Coach Blais, that’s what he breathes. Work as hard as you can for 60 minutes — that’s the main goal. If you work hard for 60 minutes and make plays, good things are probably going to happen.”

Agosta said the onus is on him and the rest of the veterans.

“I think we have a great team, a lot of talent,” Agosta said. “And as the season goes on, the younger players are starting to develop, and that’s going to be a big help. And even some of the upperclassmen have stepped up their game. LIke (Nick) Fanto. (Dan) Swanson had a great weekend last week. Mark Bernier’s having a good season.

“If we’re going to succeed this season, I think the upperclassmen, we have to do the job, be leaders on the team.”
 

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