Club Sports News

Liberty DI men's hockey enters season with strong work ethic

September 4, 2013  |  Lynchburg, Va. 

Liberty senior forward Luke Baumgarten returns from a fractured patella to provide the Flames a proven scoring touch.

Spanning seven months, longer than any other Club Sports or NCAA athletics program, a hockey season is more like a marathon than a sprint.

"It's a grind," said Liberty University senior forward and team captain Andrew McCombe, who will graduate in December and continue to play while student teaching in the spring. "Unlike a lot of the other sports on campus, it is a full year. You've got to be professional about it and show up every day willing to work as hard as you can."

The true test of a championship team is its ability to play at its highest level at the end of the year, when it matters the most.

"I felt like we kind of peaked at the wrong time last year," McCombe said.

Actually, in 2012-13, the Flames experienced many peaks and valleys — from a mountaintop beginning to a subterranean mid-season stretch and premature end.

"I think last year we had a strong start and then went into the tank a little bit," Flames head coach Kirk Handy said, noting they won their first eight games before losing six straight and nine of their next 10 to fall to .500.

Admittedly, a tough schedule contributed to the mid-season swoon as one of those losses was to eventual American Collegiate Hockey Association Division I national champion Minot State. Another was a 7-3 setback Oct. 7 at Robert Morris, a team Liberty had dominated 12-1 and 11-2 on its home ice the week before, and two others came against 2011 champion Davenport, clinching the inaugural Blue and Grey Cup for the Panthers.

Eventually, the Flames suffered a season-ending 7-4 loss in the second round of the ACHA DI national tournament against Ohio — a team they had knocked from the No. 1 spot in the ACHA DI poll with a 4-3 home win on Oct. 27, snapping a six-game skid.

Striving for consistency this season, Handy said Liberty's mantra has to be hard work.

Liberty head coach Kirk Handy is excited about his 14th season of igniting the Flames from the bench, with support from Jeff Boettger, Mike Binnie, and Jake Hannon.

"We have to outwork opponents every night in order to win," Handy said. "I'm confident in our ability this year because of our work ethic, which so far has been excellent and it's a team buy-in. That's our focus right now — hard work every day that we're in the gym and on the ice, to make sure that we're best prepared for that first game."

The Flames have an extra week of practice to prepare for their Sept. 13 and 14 debuts against the Hampton Roads Junior Whalers, set for 7 p.m. and 3 p.m., respectively at the LaHaye Ice Center.

McCombe said fans should expect "a lot of power, a lot of speed" from the rekindled Flames.

"We're going to be a fast team, and speed kills, for sure," he said.

The offseason weight-training program that new Club Sports strength and conditioning coach Joe Amberlock assigned the Flames has made a major impact on the team's fitness level entering the season.

"Huge shout out to Joe," McCombe said. "He's been absolutely awesome. He's been on us pretty hard in the mornings. He gave us all individual programs for the summer that definitely challenged us and made us push ourselves and we got a lot stronger."

Junior defenseman and assistant captain Matt Sherry believes that training regimen has prepared Liberty to contend for a national title.

"I don't think there are very many teams in this league that are getting up at 5:50 in the morning every day and sprinting till they puke," Sherry said during tryouts late last month. "It's something that's tough now, but we want to win a national championship and we'll do whatever it takes. That's going to be a huge part of it."

Handy and associate head coach Jeff Boettger will be complemented by Mike Binnie, who will again work with the goalies, and Jake Hannon, a 2012 graduate who served as the team's chaplain last year and will now serve on the coaching staff.

Jake Hannon joins the coaching staff after playing for the Flames in 2012 and serving as team chaplain last year.

Hannon, who works for Liberty University Online admissions, received a warm welcome when Handy introduced him to the team after practice on Aug. 22. He was a defenseman for the Flames as a senior after playing previously at Army, an NCAA Division I program, and for Division III Amherst.

"I've always thought about it and dreamed about it and really wanted to do it," Hannon said of the job. "God opened the door and I'm blessed. It's a great opportunity. I love the guys and love Liberty hockey and tried to make every game I could last year and was able to come in once a week and meet with the guys and do some Bible studies. So now, being able to be around them more is awesome, I'm really excited about it."

Hannon will help with the Flames' special teams and may work directly with the defensemen in the future. He said the transition to coaching has been smooth so far.

"Some of these guys were playing when I was," Hannon said. "I was out there with them and that was a lot of fun. They're all great guys. Some of these D-men like Sherry and (Cam) Bakker and ‘Kuhner' (assistant captain Jackson Kuhn) were here when I was, and some of the forwards were as well. They're all good players, skill guys, and they can move the puck, so I'm looking forward to working with them."


By Ted Allen/Staff Writer

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