Air Force Sends Another Scare, But No Win This Time
by Michael King/CHN Writer
WORCESTER, Mass. Few teams have enjoyed the same consistent success as Air Force in recent seasons. The Falcons are among a handful of teams to make the NCAA tournament five of the last six years. This exclusive group contains storied programs such as North Dakota, Boston College and Miami.
And given that success, the Falcons are often charged with the burden of proving they belong among the nation's 16 best teams. Unfortunately for Air Force, accomplishing that feat this season — like last — was forced to come against the tournament's No. 1 overall seed. After falling to Yale, 2-1, in overtime in 2010-11, the Falcons offered a similarly valiant effort against BC Saturday night.
Despite struggling with the speed of the Eagles at times, Air Force limited its defensive mistakes and forced BC to create scoring chances. Though their play was impressive against a team capable of an offensive explosion, the Falcons fell, 2-0, at the DCU Center.
"Here we are again," coach Frank Serratore said after Saturday's loss, evidently frustrated at having come close for the second year in a row of upsetting the competition's top team. "It was 1-0 entering the third, right where we wanted to be. But we needed to win the third period. We didn't find a way to score a goal; we didn’t convert or get a bounce. There were some shots we had that just didn’t go for us."
Through the program's three most recent NCAA tournament efforts (2009, 2011, and 2012), there's been one consistent characteristic: the Falcons' current senior class. Led by captains Paul Weisgarber and Scott Mathis, the seniors offer unparalleled leadership and substantial contributions on the ice.
This cohort also includes defenseman Tim Kirby, who was named a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. With his 28 points, the senior adds an offensive dynamic to the Air Force blueline.
Though the seniors will not have another chance to earn a post-season victory for their team, it's evident that they achieved tangible progress with Air Force hockey. With Atlantic Hockey championships in three of its four years, this collection of seniors turned the Academy into the conference's dominate program.
Specifically, the coach cites his two captains for much of this growth.
"Mathis and Kirby are arguably the best defensive pair ever to play at Air Force," Serratore said. "They could have been wearing the Maroon jerseys [of BC] tonight. I think they are that calibre of players."
Despite the conference success, both captains were disappointed that they could not knock off the No. 1 team twice in their careers.
"Your senior year, you have high aspirations as leaders of the team," Weisgarber said. "We wanted to take the team to the next level as seniors, and we couldn't do it. It's extremely disappointing. In a couple weeks, I think we'll look back on our careers and be proud, but it's hard to swallow right now."
However, there was a challenge beyond the program for these players. Perpetually derided by many as the weakest conference in the sport, the best from Atlantic Hockey carry the burden of the entire league.
Saturday's game was the fifth consecutive year that an AHA team forced fans to rethink this reputation. Two straight years giving the top seed all it can handle by Air Force have been preceded by RIT's run to the Frozen Four in 2009-10 and the Falcon's defeat of No. 1 Michigan one year earlier. The year before that, Air Force took Miami to overtime before falling.
Next season, Air Force hopes to again be the standard bearer for the league. But with RIT developing into an annually competitive team, and schools like Holy Cross and Niagara on the rise, the challenge will be for future classes to continue this string of success.
Though it will be a challenge for the program to replace this senior class, Air Force fans can remain in confident in the ability of its steward, Serratore.
His teams follow the same pattern: begin the season strongly, encounter a rough near the mid-season break, then emerge as an overall better hockey team. It's the mark of well-coached teams.
Among the other factors that contribute to Air Force's year-to-year consistency, the players subscribe to the concept of being a team better than most squads.
"We're the sum of our parts," Serratore said. "No one here could tell us which are our first and fourth lines, because we really don't have them. We roll four lines and everybody plays. In our program, we don't recruit the type of guys who have it all."
Among the key returnees will be goaltender Jason Torf. The sophomore keyed a return to form for his squad in early January after the netminder regained health from a groin strain at season's inception. However, he will not benefit from the calming presence of top-pairing Mathis and Kirby.
Based on his performance against BC Saturday night (32 saves), the Falcons should be content with their play at the position for the next two seasons.
"I think Torf did what he had to do for us to win the game," Serratore said of his goalie's performance. "He gave us a chance to win and that's all we could ask for."
Additionally, the Falcons welcome back nearly the entirety of its four lines, save Weisgarber. This experience and depth at the forward position should transform offense into a strength and allow these players to take a greater role in the defensive scheme.
For these soon-to-be upperclassmen, the challenge remains to continue their program's conference domination and earning another opportunity to prove they belong among the nation's best.