Balanced attack, experienced defense should take Flames far
September 11, 2013 | Lynchburg, Va.
Offensive firepower was a strength of Liberty University's American Collegiate Hockey Association Division I men's team last year, with Brent Boschman and Rick Turner capping their careers ranked second and fourth, respectively, in scoring.
This year's Flames, who open the 2013-14 season Friday at 7 p.m. in the LaHaye Ice Center against the Hampton Roads Whalers, feature better balance across the board.
Liberty, which has exactly 12 juniors and seniors and 12 freshmen and sophomores on its roster, will look to score by committee rather than lean on a few individuals, and rely on a stout defense and talented goalkeeping trio to shut opponents down.
"We feel we've got three lines this year that can score," Liberty head coach Kirk Handy said. "I feel like we've got very good energy on the fourth line who bring intangibles to our team — banging and crashing — that other teams don't have."
The majority of the Flames' offseason additions were forwards — Brandon Mistal, Robert Ward, Charles Williams, and DJ Dinnison, who was promoted from Liberty's DII squad. They strengthen already deep lines of attack that include senior captain Andrew McCombe, senior Luke Baumgarten, juniors Lindsay LeBlanc, Ryley Egan, Ryan Kerr, and Christian Garland, and sophomores Bram Erickson, Kyle Garcia, Danny Logan, and Tyson Street.
"We feel very, very good about our lineup up front," Handy said. "We've got a good mixture of guys who can put the puck in the net and guys who can play a physical brand of hockey and guys who can play in their own zone."
"The guys who are coming in are pieces of the puzzle that we've needed, so it's exciting," Flames junior defender and assistant captain Matt Sherry added. "Just the depth we have on all four lines is something we haven't had in the years I've been here and it's exciting to see what we're going to do."
Sherry, who at 220 pounds is Liberty's largest player, is complemented on defense by senior assistant captain Jackson Kuhn (5-foot-11, 207 pounds), sophomores Steven Bellew and Kyle Miller, junior Cam Bakker, and freshman Chase Harris.
"We only lost one defenseman last year (Scott Morongell) and we've got six returning guys, so it's a good corps," Sherry said.
Handy said Bellew in particular made tremendous improvements in the offseason.
"He was able to get his game to a pretty good level at the end of last year and we're excited to see how he's going to continue to transition his game as a sophomore this year. He's a big part of our team moving forward," Handy said. "If you look at the way Matt Sherry, Jackson Kuhn, and Cam Bakker were first year to second year, they elevated their game significantly and we feel the sky's the limit for Steven Bellew."
Harris (6-1, 200), a newcomer out of Greensboro, N.C., adds size to the back line.
"He played forward for most of his life but we're trying him back on D and we believe that Chase Harris has a lot of good upside," Handy said. "He's got good vision, makes a good first pass. He's going to have to learn the position a little more and to refine his skill set on the back end, but we feel he's someone who can really positively impact our team."
|Blair Bennett returns from an injury to join Clayton Brown and Matt Pinel in the Flames' stelllar goaltending trio.|
In goal, the Flames are golden, with Blair Bennett back from a torn ACL suffered late last year, when Clayton Brown replaced him between the pipes on a full-time basis.
"Brown stepped up and played very, very well last year for us," Handy said.
The addition of Matt Pinel, a freshman from Chicago, should make Liberty even stronger in the cage.
"Blair's working hard on his comeback to get back into the fray of things," Handy said. "Clayton's looked great but Matt Pinel's looked good, too. It's a good situation."
McCombe said across the board, the Flames have sharpened each other like iron sharpens iron in preseason practices.
"It's a really close group of guys," he said. "We work hard, but have a lot of fun, too. We're always pushing. It gets pretty competitive. There's fights in practice the odd time, but it's all good. All of the guys, there's a respect within the game of hockey that it's for a better purpose and that's to drive you forward and nobody takes it personally. You shake hands and have fun afterwards."
Sherry said the team's camaraderie is evident in the locker room, which should translate into a winning season on the ice.
"Everybody in the room fits well, we all get along, and we like to consider ourselves a family already," he said. "It's exciting and our goal is a national championship and anything less wouldn't be a success."
"That's the ultimate goal," McCombe added. "We've felt like we've been pretty close the last number of years. It's all about peaking at the right time and staying healthy and we'll put that one in the Lord's hands."
The Flames will find out first-hand where they're ranked in the first ACHA DI poll on Tuesday, when Liberty's broadcasting team that includes Rett McGibbon and Patrick Strawn, hosts the ACHA preseason ranking show at the LaHaye Ice Center.
"We're super, super excited about that," Handy said. "We're actually going to have some of Ohio's broadcasters down here partnering with our guys, so it'll be a real cool opportunity."
After hosting last season's ACHA national championships selection show, Liberty's postseason run ended with a 7-4 loss to Ohio in the second round of the tournament near Chicago. The Flames, who upset the Bobcats when they were the ACHA'S No. 1-ranked team Oct. 27 at home, travel to Athens, Ohio, for a rematch on Oct. 4 and 5.
"I think everybody's circled that one on their calendars," McCombe said. "We're excited for that one, to get a little revenge there. It's a pretty good rivalry. It'll be fun to play them again."
Handy said this season's schedule is as tough as or tougher than ever.
"We'll look forward to the trip to Ohio, the trip to West Virginia (Sept. 20-21), trips to Arizona in January, to Stony Brook (Jan. 11-12) — they're a great opponent —, a trip to Michigan (to face Davenport Nov. 21 and Oakland Nov. 22-23)," Handy said. "Any teams that we play four times in the year are all great rivalries."
However, he has Liberty focused on the opponent at hand, Hampton Roads, a Junior "A" team. After Friday's first faceoff, the Flames host the Whalers again Saturday at 3 p.m.
"That's going to be a key component, those first two games," Handy said. "Then from there, we get rolling. So we've got to really make sure that we're ready to go at the beginning of the year in Game 1, not Game 4, and then continue going."
"We're going to hit the ice flying," McCombe added.