Bowling Green has steadily rebuilt its program during the last six seasons.
Now, the Falcons are striving to earn regular-season and league playoff championships.
BG’s already been chosen to win the Western Collegiate Hockey Association title in separate polls of league coaches and media members, and it was 14th in U.S. College Hockey Online’s preseason poll earlier this week.
The Falcons return 12 forwards, five defensemen and two goalies — including five seniors and seven seniors — from last season when they finished 22-14-6 overall and 16-7-5 in the WCHA. They were third in the WCHA— just two points behind league champions Michigan Tech and Minnesota State.
Expectations are always high internally for the Falcons. And this season, much is expected from the Falcons from those within the league and nationally.
“We’ve gotten to the point where we deserve to be a top team in the league,” said BG senior captain and defenseman Sean Walker, a second-team all-league pick last season. “Realistically, we’re not going to let (the preseason polls and rankings) get to our heads.
“We’re going to go out there and play our game. We know every game people are expecting us to be our best, and they’re going to give us their best. We have to be on our toes every game and make sure we come ready to do what we’re expected to do.”
The Falcons hit the ice for the first time officially Saturday when they host the University of Windsor in a noon exhibition. The exhibition is a dress rehearsal for the Falcons’ first series of the season, Oct. 7-8 at Bemidji State.
Saturday marks the official starting date for full team practices under NCAA rules, although teams have had limited practice time on the ice the last four weeks.
“It’s a day-by-day thing, make sure you come to the rink every day prepared,” Walker said. “Practices lead into games. If you have a bad week of practice, most of the time your game isn’t going to d0 well. We have to make sure we’re coming to the rink every day prepared and focused, and have the right mindset.
“It doesn’t matter if they picked us to finish 10th or they picked us to finish first, we’re going to go out there and play our hardest no matter what.”
The Falcons being championship contenders is amazing in itself, given the program was on its deathbed almost a decade ago — the result of a perfect storm of reasons. But the future of the program has since been guaranteed, and the Falcons have been able to concentrate on their on-ice product.
The Falcons’ last league championships are ancient. They last won a regular-season title in 1987 and a league playoff championship in 1988, both championships coming in the now-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
BG won an NCAA championship in 1984, but hasn’t been in the national playoffs since 1990.
“We want to win something,” said Matt Pohlkamp, a solid two-way forward who is one of BG’s seniors. “We don’t want to go without winning something. It’s motivated me a lot more. I don’t want to say I’m working harder than I have in previous years, but every time you go out there, it could be your last time. It gives you that little extra push.”
But the building hasn’t been painless.
The Falcons could have won the WCHA regular-season championship last season, but they split their final series at Alabama-Huntsville — the last-place team in the league. BG was just 9-9-1 overall and 8-5-1 in the WCHA in regular-season games after Christmas last season.
The Falcons entered the holiday break with records of 11-3-5 overall and 8-2-4 in the league. BG also lost to seventh-place Lake Superior and eighth-place Alaska (Fairbanks) during the second half last season.
“There’s lot of games we shouldn’t have lost,” Walker said. “We know we have to come every game, and every game is a must win.”
The Falcons haven’t played consistently well in the second half during the last two seasons.
During the 2014-15 season, the Falcons missed the final at-large berth to the NCAA playoffs by .0014. They were just 9-7-2 overall and in the league in their final 18 regular-season games after entering the Christmas break 12-3-3, 8-1-1. They finished third in the WCHA.
BG has been third or tied for third in the WCHA the last three seasons, and also has lost in the league semifinals the last three seasons.
“There’s always benefits to failing at something,” Walker said. “Coming into the second half the last two years and not having as much success as we did the first half, we definitely know the consequences. We understand the implications if you’re not ready, you could be missing out on a great opportunity. We know that coming into the second half of the year is huge for us, and we know we have to be ready to go, no matter what.”
And Walker is encouraged by the Falcons’ starting point this season, both physically and on the ice.
The Falcons have an interesting schedule. They’ll have to play well during the first half of the road where they play 14 of their first 22 games.
After a nonleague game against the Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology in Toledo Dec. 30, BG plays nine of its final 13 games in the Ice Arena. Its final regular-season road series is Jan. 27-28 at Ferris State. And each round of the WCHA playoffs will be played at the higher-seeded team.
“We’re at the best starting point I’ve seen in my years here,” Walker said. “Everybody came in in great physical shape. We’ve been going through the systems, and everyone knows what’s going on. We’ve got a great upperclass group, and the freshmen are catching on quick. Everyone is meshing well. Practice looks good. We know what’s on the line and we’re ready to go grab it, if possible.
“My whole class came back in phenomenal shape,” Walker said. “The juniors are all in great shape, and it went all the way down. That’s a testament to the work that was put in over the summer. It’s the best starting point we’ve had physically in my years here. It’s exciting to see everyone is committed. “