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Defending CC's Owens

End Zone

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Throughout the close-knit, loyal kingdom of Colorado College hockey fans, grumbling and frustration have prevailed for the past four weeks.

CC's followers, who began this season with high expectations, instead watched in anguish as the Tigers slid from a fast start to a fifth-place finish in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. They still got a home series in the first playoff round, but imploded on March 9-10, with Michigan Tech pulling off a 3-1, 4-3 sweep.

So, a year after making the NCAA Tournament and clobbering Boston College in the first round, and despite a good returning nucleus led by forward Jaden Schwartz, this time the Tigers couldn't even advance to the WCHA Final Five.

The vultures have been circling. Some CC fans have called for head coach Scott Owens to be ousted after 13 seasons. Critics have pointed to the Tigers' habit of looking like contenders before Christmas, then fading down the stretch amid questions about inconsistent offense, average defense and inadequate conditioning.

Some of those descriptions might be appropriate, but the naysayers are forgetting one of the oldest sports cliches. Coaches get too much credit for successes, and too much blame for failures.

Surely, Owens has regrets about finishing 18-16-2 with a team that looked to have NCAA potential. Owens refuses to make excuses, even when they're legitimate and plentiful. He could have shared every detail of the Tigers' endless injuries, such as to sophomore goaltender Josh Thorimbert. The coach could have fired some darts at unresponsive players, but he's never done that.

This is not to say Owens is perfect. He's not. It's possible that some changes in conditioning are in order, to address injuries and late-season fatigue. One could argue that the Tigers need a few enforcers with mean streaks, as they've had in past years. But Owens fully deserves to stay at CC, without any doubt, and athletic director Ken Ralph agrees.

"It is clear that our players, coaches, administration and fans were all disappointed with the premature conclusion of the 2011-12 season," Ralph says. "We are clear that our goals and expectations are the pursuit of championships. We are doing everything in our power this off-season to assist the hockey program in receiving the resources and the support necessary to produce at the highest levels.

"In many respects, Scott is now a victim of his own success. Colorado College is the third-smallest school playing Division I hockey and maintains some of the most difficult admissions standards in all of Division I sports."

Yet, in his 13 years, Owens has 299 victories, 23 per season, without a single losing record. As Ralph points out, Owens has three regular-season WCHA titles, two Hobey Baker winners, seven NCAA berths and 16 All-Americans.

There is more. Of all the players who have stayed to complete their full eligibility during Owens' tenure, only one has not graduated.

"That is remarkable for any sport," Ralph says. It's especially remarkable in college hockey, with many Tiger opponents' rosters filled with players who won't finish their degrees and wouldn't have had a prayer of admission to CC.

The level of competition also has intensified since Owens replaced Don Lucia in 1999. In the past 12 seasons, WCHA teams won eight NCAA titles (two by Lucia at Minnesota). In the 12 years before Owens took over at CC, the WCHA had only two national titles. Put it this way: In almost any other league, Colorado College might be dominant.

It won't get any easier after next season, when the Tigers move into the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference. "With all that being said, Scott understands the expectations being placed on him," Ralph says, defining that constant goal as "a team that wins, and wins the right way."

Just as the Tigers have done, for two decades and counting.

routon@csindy.com

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