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Tigers enjoy an early jump on WCHA

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Scott Owens was enjoying lunch a month ago, looking ahead to his ninth hockey season as Colorado College's head coach.

Since his record was 0-0, Owens didn't have to think much about pressure. He did talk about his concerns, particularly starting the year with too little experience at goaltender and on defense.

Owens didn't want to saddle this team with excessively high expectations, especially with the Tigers' first two Western Collegiate Hockey Association series against Minnesota and North Dakota. He certainly had no inkling that today CC would be ranked No. 7 nationally, 5-3 overall and 5-1 to lead the WCHA.

At the time, Owens did have to admit the presence of one burden this winter: CC is hosting the NCAA West Regional on March 28-29, with the winner advancing to the Frozen Four on April 10-12 at Denver's Pepsi Center.

Nothing in college hockey is worse than having an NCAA regional on your home ice and not making it into the national tournament. The reward for being a regional host is substantial: If you are chosen for the 16-team NCAA field, you are guaranteed to play at home. No questions asked.

Colorado College also hosted the West Regional in 2004, a season when the Tigers figured to take full advantage of the opportunity. Instead, they fell just short, then had to endure the agony of watching rival University of Denver win the regional on the World Arena ice.

Owens obviously doesn't want that to happen again. But even with his top four scorers returning from the 18-17-4 squad last season, he knew better than to make a bold prediction in early October that this CC team would reach the NCAA Tournament. Especially when even some optimistic observers were figuring the Tigers would struggle at the start perhaps no better than 1-5 after their first three series. Owens didn't even know for sure how long it would take to fill the goaltending void left by just-graduated Matt Zaba.

Instead, Colorado College appears to have borrowed from Air Force football's script this fall. As you might recall, Falcon fans were bracing for a 1-4 start in head coach Troy Calhoun's first season. Instead, Air Force went 3-2, then onward to 6-2 and now 8-3.

CC stunned Minnesota with a sweep on the opening weekend, learned from two non-league losses at New Hampshire, salvaged a totally respectable split at North Dakota, then swept Minnesota-Duluth last weekend.

That has put the Tigers atop the WCHA. The brightest surprise has been freshman goalie Richard Bachman, who asserted himself against Minnesota and already is developing the confidence of a veteran. His 34-save shutout of Duluth last Saturday solidified him among the national leaders in goals-against average (1.49) and saves percentage (.950).

Now, riding a three-game win streak, CC faces two huge series: No. 9 Wisconsin here Friday and Saturday, and No. 4 Denver for the usual home-and-home next week (here Nov. 23, at DU Nov. 24).

Both the Badgers and Pioneers are fully capable of derailing CC's early momentum. Wisconsin will come to town with its own hot goaltender, Shane Connelly, along with two of the nation's best freshmen in Kyle Turris and Brendon Smith and some of the league's top-scoring defensemen. Denver hasn't done anything to dampen its preseason optimism.

But with only one home WCHA series between Dec. 1 and February, this is the Tigers' best chance to establish themselves firmly as league contenders.

It's a long way from November to March, and Owens would be the first to remind everyone that last season, CC looked strong through mid-January, then slumped down the stretch and lost in the first WCHA playoff round for the second straight year.

Being in first place today, though, with Bachman and steady defense complementing a balanced offense, gives the Tigers a much better chance of being on their own ice not watching when the NCAA arrives.

Academy beat: This week, for the first time, Air Force is billing runner-receiver-returner Chad Hall as a Heisman Trophy and All-America candidate. He also was on a national media teleconference call Wednesday, set up by the academy ... When was the last time Air Force ended a football regular season with three victories? That was 2000, after which the Falcons wrapped up a 9-3 year by beating Fresno State in the Silicon Valley Bowl. Air Force can make it to 9-3 again Saturday against San Diego State, but only with the kind of steadiness and minimal mistakes that produced the convincing 41-24 victory at Notre Dame. Lest we forget, San Diego State is 4-1 against Air Force since 2002.

Sadly, Notre Dame's football schedule for at least the next 10 years does not include Air Force, primarily because the Irish demanded to play at neutral sites instead of Colorado Springs. It's part of a philosophical shift for Notre Dame, refusing to play home-and-home except against its favorite three opponents: Southern Cal, Michigan and Purdue. ... Air Force hockey, also off to a decent start, has its own interesting league series this weekend, hosting Connecticut.

routon@csindy.com

SPORTS SHOT

Heisman hoopla Hard to guess who will win this year's Heisman Trophy, but Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon could make his case Thursday at Arizona (7 p.m., ESPN).

High school heaven Perhaps the best area prep football game this year: Class 4A quarterfinals, Broomfield (11-0) at Fountain (10-1), 7 p.m., Friday.

See the headline? Chicago Cubs are making a strong run for free-agent Colorado second baseman Kaz Matsui. We'll see how deep the Rockies' pockets are now.

Crazy scheduling Somebody should've thought twice before having Colorado College and Denver play on Thanksgiving weekend of Nov. 23-24 (Friday here, Saturday at Denver), when both schools' students will be gone.

RALPH'S PICKS

Just another week on the upset front, as top-ranked Ohio State fell at home to ... Illinois? And Alabama lost to Mississippi State. Week 12:

Upset specials

- Louisville (taking 6) at South Florida

- Cincinnati (taking 6) vs. West Virginia

- Michigan State (taking 3) vs. Penn State

Against the spread

- Arizona (taking 12) vs. Oregon

- San Diego State (taking 11) at Air Force

- California (giving 7) at Washington

- Kansas State (taking 7) vs. Missouri

- Texas Tech (taking 10) vs. Oklahoma

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