Air Force Comfortable as Underdog
by Joe Meloni/CHN Staff Writer
WORCESTER, Mass. Atlantic Hockey isn't Hockey East. It doesn't receive multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament. Its players aren't NHL draft picks, and, for the most part, its teams don't win many non-conference games.
Bearing these hard truths in mind, the Atlantic Hockey champion answers questions every March. Whether it's Air Force, RIT or any of the other schools in the league, the questions always come. Words like "underdog" and "favorite," "upset" and "weaker conference" are thrown around throughout the week between their selection and the first game of the national tournament.
In the last six years, that team has been Air Force five times. The Falcons, led by coach Frank Serratore, understand this role well. They don't mind playing it, either. But don't think for even a second that they view their role as an absolute indicator of their destiny against top-seeded Boston College in the Northeast Regional on Saturday.
"All of the teams that are here are capable of winning," Serratore said. "Teams have either won their way here by winning their conference tournament or by having a great season. You look at our team, we're the 16th seed. We're the lowest ranked team. We're not getting a lot of respect in this game with this terrific Boston College team."
The lack of respect doesn't bother Serratore. His players, led by Hobey Baker finalist Tim Kirby, don't think too much of it either. Reminders of their capability are not particularly difficult to find. In last year's East Regional in Bridgeport, Conn., Air Force took top-seeded Yale to overtime before falling, 2-1.
Three years ago, however, when Kirby and the three remaining Air Force seniors were freshmen, the program's most memorable victory came. The Falcons defeated No. 1 Michigan, 2-0, in Bridgeport, shocking college hockey and signaling Atlantic Hockey's rise to relevance.
Senior winger Paul Weisgarber remembers that day well. Few holdovers remain, but the current Air Force roster knows precisely the heights it can reach with a strong performance on Saturday. Ignoring the underdog title they inherited with their Atlantic Hockey championship, they will look to each other to compete for a spot in Sunday's Regional championship game.
"We have a lot of pride. We know how hard we worked to get here," Weisgarber said. "The Atlantic Hockey league doesn't get a lot of credit throughout college hockey. Regardless, we had to win big games to get here, and it's always win or go home for us. There are no at-large bids for (Atlantic Hockey). We're under a lot of pressure for two or three weeks, and that's what makes it so excited to get here.
"The non-conference games mean a lot to us. When we can play against the big time schools, we get up for them."
The last five years have shown that rising to the occasion against the nation's top clubs comes fairly easy for Air Force. Since the 2007-08 season, the Falcons have earned wins over Michigan, Colorado College and Yale. The losses have come, of course, but more than one has been decided in overtime.
The credentials of its opponent on Saturday are of a greater esteem with national championships and titles in one of the nation's top conferences. Serratore respectfully counters by pointing to his own, with wins over top-ranked opponents and sustained dominance in Atlantic Hockey as reason enough to believe his team can do it again.
"If you look at your team over the last five years, we beat five top five teams in the last five years," Serratore said. "Our seniors are not intimidated by the situation. We have a ton of respect for Boston College, Jerry York and their phenomenal team. But we're not intimidated by the situation. Our seniors have beaten four top five teams. Actually, in the last five years, we only played nine (top five teams). We're 5-4."
Saturday afternoon, Air Force and Boston College will open the Northeast Regional. At this point, Air Force has very little to prove. The Falcons know they belong here. The issue, now, is earning their way to a Frozen Four for the first time in program history. A win over BC would be that first step. Serratore and his team don't even want to think about the second step, rightfully focused on handing the Eagles their first loss since Jan. 21.
"We have to do everything we can to be successful," Weisgarber said.
"It's certainly not going to be easy."
Then, neither was beating Michigan.