Volkening: Anchor in Stormy Waters
Air Force Goalie Adds Consistency For Inconsistent Squad in an Inconsistent League
by Theresa Spisak/CHN Reporter
By their second game of the new year last season, the Air Force Academy Fighting Falcons had played four goaltenders.
The team had played three by the end of October, trying to find the go-to guy between the pipes; the inconsistent roller coaster ride in net ending up a metaphor for their season.
This year, the team has had one man between the pipes for every game save one — Andrew Volkening.
The sophomore from Genoa, Ill., has been the No. 1 goaltender at the Academy since the Falcons' Atlantic Hockey Championship game against Army last March, helping the team to the conference title and their first ever NCAA tournament bid.
Talk among Academy staff is that when Volkening was recruited, coach Frank Serratore said that he was the Falcons' guy for the future.
"You'd like to think that because at the time, we were struggling with musical goalies and so that probably kept me sane thinking that way; it made me sleep a little bit better at night," said Serratore with a smile. "But, you never know until they actually come out and get it done. Keep in mind it took him until the last game of the season last year to become our No. 1 goalie, all the way to the game with Minneosta (in the NCAAs).
"I'd like to have a number one. I think you always want to have a number one because if you have a number one, you've got a guy that's playing well and getting the job done for you. If you're playing four different guys, that's obviously not the case."
Now that he has the starting job, Volkening is adapting to the role.
"It feels good," he said, "but you're always struggling and pushing yourself to do better and not fall into kind of a mediocre routine and stuff and push yourself and I think that's something being a No. 1 goalie, it's easy to fall into that pit."
That being said, the netminder prefers his situation this year.
"We [goalies] never really knew what was going on so this year it'll be a lot more focused where it's 'Okay, I'm playing the next day or whenever, so I need to do this, this and this, to get prepared for' while last year, it was just kind of like, 'I don't even know if I'm going, I gotta look good for coach,' that sort of thing.
"I don't think there's one specific ideal situation, but I like where I'm at right now."
His defensemen like having one guy manning the pipes, too — especially senior assistant captain Frank Schiavone.
"It's kind of a good feeling knowing; he's getting kind of predictable; just knowing his little quirks and stuff like that that he does and habits that we have together," he said. "We can get a rhythm for stopping the puck behind the net; just little stuff like that that we couldn't really get into last year, having a new guy in net every night, so it helped out."
Now, goaltender and defense can settle in a predictable pattern, where unspoken communication takes place.
However, the defensemen aren't the only ones happy about having one guy in net.
"To be honest with you, it's nice to have a No. 1 goalie because it's one less decision you have to make," said Serratore. "There's enough decisions that we have to make during the course of a week and a game and a weekend of games and knowing that's that one thing we don't have to put any thought and stress into, that's where you want to be."
For Serratore, it's especially nice knowing who's starting between the pipes every night because at the United States Air Force Academy, goaltender is the hardest position on the hockey team.
"Believe it or not, playing goal for us is challenging and is challenging in the sense that our goalies don't see a lot of shots and believe it or not, that's more difficult than seeing shots with regularity," he said.
"There's a lot of pressure on him. We got a bad combination — our team is very good defensively; we don't give up a lot of shots and some nights, we don't score a lot of goals so the margin of error is awful thin in that situation. But for the most part, Volks has done a good job for us. We have a lot of faith in him."
Schiavone concurred, mentioning the fact that the Falcons rarely give up more than 20 shots a game.
"He's one of those guys where you know he's going to stop the first shot no matter where it comes from which is always nice — knowing that if we clear the front of the net well enough, he'll stop the puck."
And stop the puck well he does, compiling a .903 saves percentage and a 2.36 goals against average (first in the conference) through 26 games this season — statistics that could arguably be better if he saw more shots.
"If I had my preference, I mean I would definitely like to see around 30 shots a game," said Volkening. "It keeps me into it, it's a lot easier to be focused, you don't think as much — you just react and react and you're not seeing a lot, you know, it seems like every opportunity there is that comes along is a good opportunity and you're over-thinking things and then things just tend to go wrong. But yeah, I don't know, my numbers are probably even better when I'm seeing more shots, probably."
"I can imagine you'd like to get peppered with pucks and see 'em, see 'em, see 'em," said Schiavone, "but for him, he can go five minutes without one shot and then it's a dump from the red line that's bouncing and everyone on the bench just holds their breath 'cause he hasn't seen a puck in five minutes. But, he's doing a pretty good job of it and it's working out pretty well for us so far."
Working out as well as things can be, in a year where splits are more common than sweeps in Atlantic Hockey and where a three-point weekend almost feels like a four-point weekend. For a team that was picked to finish second in the league, they've been plagued by inconsistency since the starting weekend of conference play — a split against Bentley College.
As the Fighting Falcons get to take on Bentley's Falcons once again, Volkening and his squad can only hope the consistency in net can spread outward as the team prepares for the stretch run.
"I think that's kind of the way our league is right now ... hardly anybody's coming away with sweeps and things like that, but I know we're trying to patch up some things in our defensive zone," said Volkening. "I think I've fallen into a mediocre kind of play and [I'm] trying to pull myself out of that. But I think with those two things we'll accomplish a lot."