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It was the biggest thing to happen to Niagara's men's hockey program since Blaise MacDonald left for Massachusetts.

Niagara's conference -- College Hockey America -- was granted an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament beginning next season.

This in effect ends a year of speculation of Niagara moving into the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, pairing up with Canisius and having all of its sports teams in the same league.

"This is a huge day for Niagara and for the CHA," Purple Eagles' coach Dave Burkholder said Monday when the announcement was made. "It's great for recruiting. Our goal as a staff and as players and as administrators at Niagara is to win a national championship."

Getting the automatic qualifier was an ordeal for the three-year old conference. It was another round of complicated NCAA mumbo jumbo and a change in the rules for conferences to gain automatic bids into the hockey tournament.

Under one set of rules, the CHA would have been forced to sit out an eight-year waiting period, making the conference eligible for an automatic bid in 2011.

But under the older set of rules, the CHA was eligible in 2003.

"In June the NCAA said it would be eight years, then in July there was a total reversal and it would be 2003," Niagara Athletic Director Mike Hermann said. "When we thought it would be eight years, we actually contacted the MAAC."

"Quite frankly, if the CHA wasn't eligible until 2011, I think administration would have made a move to the MAAC," Burkholder said. "But for us to reach our goal and to play a competitive national schedule, the CHA is the place to do it for now."

Why does Niagara love the CHA so much?

First of all, there are just six teams -- the NCAA minimum for a conference. That means teams have about 14 slots for nonconference opponents on their schedule, giving schools lots of leeway to play the elite programs of college hockey -- an attractive enticement in recruiting.

The Purple Eagles already have done an outstanding job loading their schedule with quality competition. They've got two games at Michigan State on the docket for next season along with a rematch against MacDonald's UMass-Lowell, currently undefeated and ranked ninth in the country.

In addition, Niagara likes the commitment to hockey of the other CHA schools -- Air Force, Alabama-Huntsville, Bemidji State, Findlay and Wayne State. Schools are permitted to give the full NCAA allotment of scholarships -- 18, while the MAAC has capped its scholarship limit at 11.

The MAAC got its automatic bid last year with Mercyhurst representing the conference, losing in the first round.

Niagara remains the only school in CHA history to go to the NCAA tournament when the Purple Eagles got an at-large bid in 2000. While Burkholder and Hermann both say Niagara's scheduling philosophy will stay the same -- geared toward climbing high in the PairWise rankings -- there will be added importance to conference games and the postseason CHA tournament.

"Really, the end of the year is the time we're going to want to peak," Burkholder said. "The year we got the at-large bid, every night was like our Stanley Cup so to speak. We could not afford nonconference losses and our approach every night was like that. . . . I would think that every conference game next season will be of a bigger level of importance for our players because you're competing for the top seed in the playoffs. Knowing what's on the line in the CHA now just makes the conference that much better."

The CHA is the sixth conference to get an automatic bid to the tournament, joining the traditional Big 4 conferences -- Hockey East, Central Collegiate Hockey Association, Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference and the Western Collegiate Hockey Association -- and the MAAC.

The NCAA tournament is a 12-team field, now giving half of the spots to conference tournament champions and half as at-large bids. The CHA's automatic bid comes in time for the Frozen Four's appearance in Western New York. The 2003 NCAA Championship will be held in HSBC Arena, April 10-12.

Man in a hurry

It wasn't so much winning the Atlantic 10 men's cross country championships that surprised La Salle University junior Todd Witzleben. It was his time.

"I ran 34 seconds faster than I did a month ago when I ran that same course and I thought I had a pretty good race that day," the Orchard Park High School graduate said. "I was shocked at the time. I didn't know how fast I ran. It felt like we were walking, like we were going real slow. When I finished I had no clue."

He finished the 5K race in 25:00.3 and was named Most Outstanding Performer at the A-10 Championships last weekend.

Witzleben paced La Salle, which won its second A-10 men's team title in the past three years as the Explorers claimed the top four places. The team moves on to NCAA District II competition at Lehigh University in two weeks.

"We have a very strong team and we're hoping to make nationals as a team," Witzleben said. "Running as a group really helped our team this week. The four of us were able to feed off each other. It's nice to have a strong team to get you excited about a race."

Around campus

Medaille's women's volleyball team competed in the United States College Athletic Association national tournament last weekend in Dallas. After winning the North Eastern Athletic Conference title with a 16-14 record, the Mavs went to the national championship for small colleges, dropping their matches to Florida College, Southern Virginia University, Taylor-Ft. Wayne and eventual champion University of Dallas.

Jamie Hettinger (Sweet Home) was named the Region III Division 2 Player of the Year and Stacy Koslosky (Iroquois) was named to the All-Region first team as Genesee Community College swept Mercyhust North East, 30-14, 30-18, 30-18. GCC (40-16) will represent Region II at the national championships in Newark, Del., next week.

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