On 'Under'dogs and 'Over'rated; On Pride and Bluster
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. The best part of Air Force making the NCAA Tournament, from the media's perspective, is that the human quote machine — coach Frank Serratore — comes with the package.
He's — rightfully — proud of the program, and makes sure everyone knows it. And he had reason to be proud again, when his team took Yale to overtime in Friday's NCAA East Regional game. In making the tournament four of the last five years, Air Force has given many teams scares, and nearly made the Frozen Four in 2009 when it stunned Michigan, then took Vermont to double overtime.
The game plan against Yale was to wear down the opponent, as Serratore explained.
"Yale is an explosive team that plays with a tremendous amount of energy," he said, "and our game plan was to rope-a-dope (our) way through two periods. They can't play like that for three periods, nobody can. We figured that they would lose their energy, they would just peter out a little bit. And in the third period, we took their shots and got some bounces, and all of a sudden the worm started to turn and all of a sudden we were the ones with legs."
Indeed Air Force looked like it had better legs late in the third period and in overtime. But Yale won on a second-effort play early in the extra session.
"Sometimes life isn't fair," Serratore explained. "Better get used to it. This ain't a juice box league. Win or go home. It didn't go our way tonight, but I couldn't be more proud of our boys. ... I can't imagine that all the fans in the stands, the Yale fans, aren't leaving here happy their team won but without some respect for the effort our team put forth.
"They're an explosive team that exudes a tremendous amonut of energy. But we're at the Air Force Academy — our guys are in tremendous shape. Like a Mike Tyson fight, they needed to knock us out in the first period. ... If we could get to the third, we needed to win the game in the third period. The longer that game — we played a terrific road game against a team that plays with tremendous energy. They tried to knock us out, we rope-a-doped enough, got to the third period ... and they were all over us for a period and half, we knew that was going to happen. We kept a third man back, we pushed the rush out wide, we packed our zone coverage — we had things in survival mode — but we knew the worm would turn, and it did. It was anybody's ballgame in the third period and overtime."
And that's why, despite the loss, Serratore remained as exhuberant as ever in defending his program and his conference, Atlantic Hockey.
"You know what we are? In BCS terms, we're not the SEC, the PAC-10, the Big 12," Serratore said. "We don't have the depth Hockey East has, the depth the WCHA has. But our best team is a good team, and they've proven that every year. We're the Boise State, the TCU of the field. And I don't think there's enough of those teams in the field. They make it interesting. Don't think everyone watching on TV, if they weren't rooting for Yale, were rooting for Air Force.
"Keep in mind, we come in here, we don't get a third seed, we don't get a second seed. We're playing No. 1 or No. 2 in the country. And you look at our record ...," — and this is when Serratore, on the last question of the evening, busted out his best Howard Cosell — "... down goes Minnesota, down goes Michigan, down goes Denver, down goes New Hampshire. We've had some heartbreaking losses, but we're there at the end.
"I'll tell 'ya, there ain't a more relieved person in the building than Keith Allain. 'Cause he knows he got a heckuva game from the boys from Air Force. Thanks."
Speaking of Conference Chatter
Writing about this probably gives more credence to the whole boring topic than it's worth. But every few years, I feel the need to whip out this speech, and open myself up to abuse.
The ECAC was left having to defend itself after Yale lost to Minnesota-Duluth. In fact, UMD took out the ECAC's top two teams, both of which legitimately appeared to have strong seasons this year. Yale, in particular, had a team as capable of beating anyone since the 2003 Cornell team that made the Frozen Four.
But with the loss to UMD, the naysayers went on a rampage, gloating that Yale was overrated all season long.
I haven't quite figured out why fans of non-ECAC schools find glee in that, even if it was true, which is debateable. Why the hate? It's hard to explain. I've always maintained that the ECAC schools should be commended for being as competitive as they are given their restrictions. What is up with the need to knock them down and gloat when they lose?
Maybe the Pairwise inflates some ECAC teams' rankings slightly — but not by much. In fact, the year Cornell made the Frozen Four, it was No. 1 in KRACH. This year, Yale was No. 3 — not that far off. Many, many No. 1 seeds don't make the Frozen Four — are they all overrated too?
The thing is, these ECAC teams don't get as many cracks at it as the others do. So Denver can lose in the first round three straight times, and then come back the next year, and try it all over again. Yale and Union probably won't be afforded that opportunity. And Yale, in this three-year run, did go 2-3. Cornell has gone 6-6 in the last decade, and has proven it time and again — beating Colorado College, Ohio State, Northeastern, Boston College and Minnesota State along the way.
Boston College got thumped by Colorado College. Does anyone seriously believe that BC was overrated all year? Obviously, the Eagles get the benefit of the doubt because of their past, and the ECAC teams don't necessarily have that past. Understood. But it should point out obvious flaws in trying to draw conclusions from a limited set of games.
Union went to Minnesota and won, this year. Yale went to Colorado Springs, and clobbered CC, this year. Do those games not mean anything? That is how Yale got its No. 1 seed.
Are the ECAC teams better than the WCHA teams? As a whole, no, of course not. No one says they are. But that doesn't mean individual teams can't be good. And it certainly doesn't mean anyone needs to take glee in their disappointments.
There are knuckleheads everywhere, of course. WCHA towns don't have the market cornered on that. Just look at the in-fighting between RPI and Cornell fans, or New Hampshire and Maine fans, or Boston College fans and everyone else.
But there are just as many great people everywhere — so many great players, coaches, support staffs and fans in every conference. Frankly, I appreciate all of the programs, everywhere, because they all bring something to this great sport of college hockey that we love. It would just be nice if some people didn't make it so difficult to like them. Heh.
Mainly, though, it just gets tiring talking about — so I'll probably retire this speech for another few years.
In any event, Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin was gracious enough not to buy into all of that after his team knocked off Yale on Saturday.
"They're good teams," Sandelin said of Yale and Union. "And we played Clarkson earlier in their barn, and it was a battle. There's a lot parity. There's a fine line. (Yale) pushes the puck up the ice as well as anybody. They've got some speed, they've got a great transition game — I thought Union was as hard a working team as we've seen. ... And they've got some young players that are going to get better. We're always biased, you know, but I think partly due to all the parity, everyone gets better."