New System, Attitude Propels Army
by Timothy O'Donnell/CHN Writer
There’s a new feeling around Tate Rink at West Point these days. Gone are the feelings of frustration and disappointment from a year ago, replaced by hope and excitement.
“Everybody’s coming to the rink happy, excited, looking forward to getting on the ice for practice and looking forward to that next game,” Army head coach Brian Riley said. “There’s been a real positive attitude with coaches and with the players so far for sure.”
After last season’s 4-23-7 campaign, there wasn’t much reason for Army fans or even players to look forward to this season. Eleven seniors graduated and were replaced by 13 freshmen. The Black Knights were picked to finish 10th in the Atlantic Hockey Preseason Coaches Poll.
But things haven’t gone as expected. The Black Knights are 5-6-2, but, more importantly are 5-2-2 in Atlantic Hockey play and sit in third place after Niagara and Holy Cross. The last time they won five of their first nine Atlantic Hockey games, the Black Knights won the Atlantic Hockey regular season title.
Army is always going to have its challenges, but fellow service academy Air Force has proved it can be successful, and beyond, within its niche. That puts pressure on Riley — part of a Riley family legacy that has coached Army, remarkably, since 1950 — to show he can do it too.
When the 2011-12 season ended, Riley knew that something had to change. The Black Knights finished tied for last place and had the fewest win since the 1951-1952 season. And so Riley decided to hit the reset button on the team, starting with himself.
“Last year was kind of a wake up call to say ‘You know what? You got to do some things different,’” Riley said.
And that’s what he did. Riley spent the spring of 2012 changing offseason workouts and creating a more structured system for his Black Knights.
“How we forecheck, how we play D zone, its all completely different,” Riley said. “I think it's better suited to the players we have here.“
The new system, combined with the 13 freshmen, makes it seem like a whole new team, says senior Andy Starczewski.
And this “new team” has already created waves in Atlantic Hockey. On Oct. 27, they traveled to the Hart Recreation Center to take on Holy Cross, a place where the Black Knights have won just twice since joining Atlantic Hockey in 2003. They beat the Crusaders 7-2.
“I was in the car with (fellow senior) John Clark. We were just driving down the street," Starczewski said. "There was complete silence in the car and I just looked at him and I just (said) ‘Man we just went to Holy Cross and beat them 7-2. We have the tools to make this a great year.' Us, as senior leadership, know there’s something different about this year.”
The Black Knights have followed that win with wins over Sacred Heart, American International and at Bentley. The only league games they lost were against Atlantic Hockey leaders Niagara, which has beaten every Atlantic Hockey foe they’ve faced this year.
“There’s just a lot of excitement in our room right now,” Riley said. “It’s a team that’s a lot of fun to be around.”
The Black Knights' success is not easily seen in the scoresheet. They aren’t an offensive juggernaut. Instead there is a new attitude around Tate Rink that is being carried into every game.
“These guys now come to rink and expect to win,” Riley said. “They don’t hope to win, they expect to win.”
This is a complete 180-degree turn from last year, where luck just never seemed to be on the Black Knights side.
“We were in so many close games and we could never seem to get it to go our way,” Riley said of last season. “I think we were almost expecting something bad to happen and it would.”
Much of this success had be traced to Riley’s new system and the freshmen class. All 13 freshmen have appeared in at least two games and two (Thane Heller and Joe Kozlak) are among the team’s top five scorers.
“These guys have done a great job handling being a freshman here at West Point,” Riley said. “They feel confident about their game. Each game, you can kind of see it. They have gotten more and more confident. It’s been fun to see them grow already in just two short months.”
For Starzcewski, who plays on a line with Heller and Willie Faust, another freshman, it’s been nice having a large group of freshmen.
“They love being at the rink,” Starczewski said. “For older guys like myself, its really nice to have that type of atmosphere where everybody is in tune with each other. We show up at the rink ready to have a good time and get down to work.”
There is something else that has propelled this Black Knights team. Major Tom Kennedy, a former Army hockey player and officer representative, was killed in Afghanistan on Aug. 8.
“Major Kennedy was somebody who had been around our program for the last four years,” Riley said. “We saw him every day. He was around our players. He was a great mentor for our players.”
While this whole season is being dedicated to “TK”, as he was known, it was the Black Knights’ game against American International on Dec. 1 that stands out. That night was dedicated to Major Kennedy.
“We didn’t really have a chance to say goodbye to TK,” Riley said. “For a lot of us, the emotion of that game, when it ended and we were able to get a win, it was kind of a way for us to say goodbye and know that whenever we look back on the night we played for Major Kennedy we’ll be able to look back with no regrets.”
Riley brought the game puck to Kennedy’s grave that night.
The Black Knights are hoping to carry the emotion and momentum of that game to continue to make Kennedy proud the rest of the season.
“We’re going to bring our game at 100 percent effort,” Starczewski said. “We’re going to force people to play on our terms.”