Air Force Overcoming Early-Season Hurdles
by Ryan McDonald/CHN Reporter
Every team starts its season with some level of uncertainty. That level of uncertainty was ratcheted up this season for the Air Force Falcons.
As one of our nation’s five service academies, the Air Force was subject to drastic cutbacks as a result of the government shutdown in early October. One of the first programs at the Academy to face these cutbacks was athletics. The Falcons had their exhibition game against the University of New Brunswick on October 7 cancelled, and their trip to Alaska to face Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska-Fairbanks was in jeopardy, leaving the Falcons in limbo.
“It was tough mentally not knowing if we were going to play”, said senior defenseman and co-captain Adam McKenzie.
Ultimately, the Falcons received clearance to play, and travelled to Alaska, where they lost 6-1 to Fairbanks and 4-2 to Alaska-Anchorage. But the team was quick to dismiss the effects of the shutdown on their performance.
“We can’t use (the shutdown) as an excuse," junior forward Cole Gunner said. "We can’t let up the first goal against Alaska, and we can’t let Alaska-Anchorage get ahead at all. That’s what we took from the trip.”
Coach Frank Serratore added to that sentiment, saying, “It is what it is. We can’t make excuses.”
The Falcons also faced another challenge unique to their position as one of the two service academies in Division I hockey. A new Academy policy forced the cadets to eat lunch with their squadrons, instead of together as a team, which had been tradition in past years.
“It was a little tough to get the freshmen integrated into the team dynamic at the beginning of this year,” McKenzie said.
The team’s leadership attempted to put together a softball game as a preseason bonding experience, but an early season snowfall in Colorado put a damper on those plans as well.
McKenzie said that the team did manage to come together during some early season practices, which has helped with chemistry as the season has progressed.
The Falcons moved on very nicely from their disappointing Alaska trip. The team won five of their next six games, including wins over Atlantic Hockey foes Niagara, Canisius and RIT. Their lone loss came against Mercyhurst on November 2nd.
“That game was a little bit of a scheduling quirk,” Serratore said. When the Atlantic Hockey schedule came out, Mercyhurst was scheduled to play Nov. 1 at RIT. When Canisius switched its schedule to play a weekend series against Miami in Oxford, Mercyhurst was left with an off day, while the Falcons played in Rochester, bussing from there to Erie, Pa., that night. After arriving at 1:30 a.m., the Falcons took the ice later that day against the Lakers.
Serratore was adamant, however, that he wasn’t sure the scheduling quirk had a big effect on his players.
“Even if we had been fresh, I’m not sure it would have mattered. Mercyhurst played great hockey that night,” Serratore said.
Since then, Air Force has had an impressive win over Colorado College and tie against Denver, before going winless now in its last four (0-2-2).
One of the driving forces behind Air Force’s play thus far has been Gunner, a native of Richfield, Minn., who has 14 points through 14 games this season. When asked about his output thus far, Gunner said that he is “keeping it simple. I’m putting pucks on net, and just trying to focus on beating my man to open space.”
He was also quick to praise his linemates, juniors Scott Holm and Chad Demers, something echoed by Serratore.
“Success on that line is distributed equally,” Serratore said. “Cole is the motor on the line, and he has the skill to back it up. (Chad) Demers is the brains, and (Scott) Holm is the classic power forward. Cole’s motor is always running, which definitely helps those guys.”
The Falcons are confident in their ability to play with any team on their schedule, especially at the Academy, where altitude varies from 6,200 to 9,000 feet above sea level.
“We feel like we can beat any team on any given night,” Gunner said.
McKenzie echoed those same sentiments, saying, “We definitely feel like we can beat anyone when we play at home. We feel like playing (at the Academy) is a tremendous advantage for us,” when compared to playing at Atlantic Hockey schools on the East coast, where the altitude is significantly closer to sea level.
“Our team has a lot of confidence, and we can beat any team on our schedule, but we can also lose to any team on there as well,” Serratore said.