FOND DU LAC, Wis. (SabreAthletics.com) -- Fresh off its third straight Midwest Collegiate Hockey Association North Division title, the Marian University men's team has high hopes for this upcoming season. The Sabres bring in many new faces, including 11 newcomers and a championship-laden head coach.
Aside from the new additions, the Sabres return 17 letterwinners, including 78 percent of their goal scoring and 74 percent of their total points from a year ago. After losing their coach the day after last season ended, Marian went out and got A.J. Aitken, who spent nine seasons and won three national titles as an associate head coach at St. Norbert College.
Aitken is anxious to get the season underway and fully expects his 2012-13 Marian squad to compete for an MCHA championship.
"Our expectations are high," Aitken said. "Our goal is to get home ice in the first round of the Harris Cup and make a run at the league."
Some coaches that take over a program might want to make drastic changes, but not Aitken, who inherits a tight-knit group already equipped with profound leadership from two of its senior forwards, captain Dakota Dubetz and assistant captain Brendan Roberts.
Both individuals have shown they can be vocal leaders, but most of their talking is done on the ice, where they have combined to score 73 goals and 185 total points, while each has started all 80 team games since their arrival to Marian in 2009.
Dubetz, a three-time All-MCHA and 2010 Reebok All-American selection, ranks atop the Marian record books in several career categories, including ninth in goals (45), fifth in points (119) and third with 74 assists – six behind the all-time leader Jon Daigle ('05).
Brian Berger had a phenomenal freshman campaign last season, leading the Sabres with 17 goals on the way to earning All-MCHA Freshman team honors.
"We're looking for Brian to be even more of an offensive threat this year," Aitken said. "He has experience now, understands the league and should be able to show great things again this season."
Several newcomers are expected to be key contributors this season, including transfers Tyler Klein and Ashton Reinboldt, who will surely add speed and excitement at the forward position. Brett Campbell is another, who won the RBC Championship last season and was named 2011 NOJHL Player of the Year as a member of the Junior A squad, Soo Thunderbirds.
Defensively, the Sabres will try to replace Tommy Fitzpatrick, who graduated early and decided to try his hand at the professional ranks. The three-year starter re-wrote the defensemen record books by setting the all-time record for assists by a defenseman with 62 and finished his career with 75 points in 78 games.
"It's going to be replace by committee – an open competition," Aitken said of trying to replace a guy like Fitzpatrick. "Nosella will play in all situations, as well as, Burton. It'll be an opportunity for guys to jump in that role."
"Our goaltending is strong with Josh and Randy," Aitken said. "We're looking for them to be the backbone. Should be some good, healthy competition as they push each other and make each other better throughout the season."
The season gets off to a quick start as Marian will have had just five days of official practice prior to its season and home opener against UW-Stout on Saturday, Oct. 20.
The MCHA opener looms Nov. 2, as they travel to Lake Forest for the first part of a back-to-back home-and-home series. The Sabres will spend a lot of time at home in the first half of the season, hosting five of their first seven games.
"You have to split the year into two seasons," Aitken said. "This is season one and we're fortunate enough to be at home. We have to take advantage."
At the tail-end of the first half, Marian will head to De Pere to take part in the MCHA/NCHA Showcase where Aitken will face his former team, St. Norbert, for the first time.
"It'll be special, but I don't want to put too much emphasis on it," Aitken said. "The main focus is taking care of business in the league."
Marian's final game of the first half will be Dec. 8, in the back-end of a home-and-home series with MSOE, the team that ended the Sabres' season in the Harris Cup Semifinals last March. Following that game and the month-long holiday break, Marian won't return to its home ice until Feb. 2, nearly a two-month gap between home games.
The Sabres will be on the road for eight of their last 10 games, but conclude the regular season Feb. 15-16, with a home-and-home series against Concordia Wisconsin, a team now coached by their former coach of the previous eight seasons, Jasen Wise. The MCHA tournament follows soon thereafter with the semifinal and final taking place Feb. 22-23, in Adrian, Mich.
"Our team has a good feeling that we have the guys to do what it takes to win the MCHA title," Aitken said. "Now we just have to put it all together."