DETROIT – Michigan collides with CCHA front-runner Ferris State next weekend in a home-and-home series that could go a long way in determining the eventual league champion. It’s the Wolverines’ biggest test of the season, and their already young defense will have to play it while relying on at least one unproven blueliner.

On Thursday, the Big Ten declared defenseman Eric Werner academically ineligible for the winter semester.

“We’ve thrown Reilly Olson into a tough spot, and Dave Wyzgowksi,” coach Red Berenson said of the two rarely- used defensemen, one or both of whom will probably be asked to play a regular role for the remainder of the season.

Losing Werner further depletes Michigan’s already thin defensive unit, particularly because he was leading Michigan defenders with 13 points.

“Being one of our top defensemen, (who) we count on every game, it’s a pretty big blow to our team to have him out of the lineup for the rest of the year,” sophomore defenseman Brandon Rogers said. “But now it’s up to other guys to step up and fill in his role.”

The Wolverines will be counting on Rogers to be one of those guys.

Michigan was also without junior Andy Burnes this weekend against Lake Superior because of a groin injury, and that meant that the Wolverines leaned heavily on their remaining experienced defenders: Rogers, fellow sophomore Nick Martens and senior Mike Roemensky. Michigan expects to have Burnes back for its duel against Ferris State.

Of the remaining three defensemen that Michigan dressed this weekend, Wyzgowski has the most games under his belt. But he played forward before this season and hasn’t been a regular in the lineup to this point. Freshman Danny Richmond, now the Wolverines’ highest-scoring defenseman, is known for his offensive skills, but is still learning to play in his own zone at the collegiate level. Olson, a redshirt freshman has played sparingly until now.

“Brandon and Nicky Martens, they really had to pick it up this week, and Mike Roemensky,” Berenson said. “They did a great job playing with less experienced players and doing what they had to do to help us.”

That trio could see extra minutes for the rest of the season.

The defensive hole was created because Werner’s overall GPA doesn’t meet conference standards, Berenson said Saturday night. He added that he was somewhat surprised by the decision.

Werner attributed his trouble to personal problems, and Berenson said Michigan gave the Big Ten “some good reasons to give (Werner) consideration.”

“And yet, they went by the letter of the law, saying, ‘We’ve never made an exception, and there’s no precedent for this,'” Berenson said. “They gave us a decision that sounded like it came from a legal decision rather than a human decision.”

Werner is the third Michigan player to get into trouble in the classroom this season. Backup goaltender Chris Gartman sat out the first half of the season because of problems with transfer credits (he came to the Wolverines from Cornell). Michigan suspended forward Milan Gajic in November because he was in danger of losing his eligibility. Berenson expressed disappointment that Michigan players haven’t been able to escape academic penalties this season.

“The final accountability still comes down to the student athlete, but they have a tough job too, and one class can bury you – make you or break you,” Berenson said.

The coach added that Werner wants to return next season, and Berenson hopes he can, but he wouldn’t say that the defenseman will be able to come back for sure.

And next fall, the Wolverines will be crowding in behind the blueline. The North American Hockey League announced last week that Michigan, which has already signed three talented defensemen for 2003-04, has received a verbal commitment from a fourth, the Texas Tornado’s Matt Nickerson.

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