Four seniors going out on an all-time high for Flames
February 19, 2014 | Lynchburg, Va.
For the four seniors on Liberty University's ACHA Division I men's hockey team, the 2013-14 season has already been one to remember.
Team captain and forward Andrew McCombe, assistant captain and defenseman Jackson Kuhn, goalie Blair Bennett, and forward Caleb Grow have had a huge hand in lifting the Flames (28-6-2) as high as No. 3 in the ACHA DI national rankings after starting the season at the No. 13 spot.
Liberty is ranked No. 4 heading into Friday night's regular-season finale at 7 against the Richmond Generals Junior "A" team at the LaHaye Ice Center. The Flames earned their seventh bid to the ACHA DI National Championships in the seven seasons they've had a DI team and will play the winner of No. 13 Naval Academy and No. 20 West Virginia in their opening game, March 7 at 11 a.m. at the University of Delaware.
McCombe is second on the team in scoring with 16 goals and 34 assists, one point ahead of freshman forward Robert Ward. Only junior forward Lindsay LeBlanc (23G, 29A) has scored more points for the Flames this season. For his career, McCombe has now tallied 58 goals and distributed 87 assists.
He scored the game-winner in overtime Saturday night against West Virginia in a 3-2 victory at LaHaye, finishing a rebound of a shot by Ward from out of a scrum in front of the goal.
"It's been an absolute blessing to play here for four years," McCombe said. "I wouldn't take it back for anything. I'm just excited to finish it off with a good nationals run."
He said the team has developed chemistry and refined its character through several on-ice tests this season.
"We have a very deep team this year," McCombe said. "It's a really close group of guys. We work hard, but have a lot of fun, too. Our focus right now is just on the next practice. Every practice now is just a building block toward the national championship."
After Liberty defeated Oakland on Feb. 7 at LaHaye, McCombe issued Kuhn the "Hard Hat" of the game for his work ethic on the ice.
"He told me that I looked like a young Ville Leino," Kuhn said of the Philadelphia Flyers' left wing. "I like to get the puck in the middle of the ice with speed and Ville likes to do the same thing. He's a two-way guy who likes to hop up on the play, to pick pucks off and make stuff happen."
Surprisingly as a defenseman, Kuhn ranks fourth on the Flames in scoring this season with 14 goals and 26 assists, including one of each in the Oakland game.
"I've been thankful to actually be a bit more involved in the offense this year, especially where I am in the power play, it's all down low," Kuhn said. "It's been a big blessing."
Bennett, who rehabilitated from offseason surgery on his torn ACL over the summer, posted a shutout in his first game back Sept. 27, a 10-0 triumph over Towson.
He has platooned with freshman goalie Matt Pinel, but has been an anchor of Liberty's defense ever since, going 16-4-1 with a 2.37 goals-against average and a career-best 0.92 save percentage.
"It's been my best year," Bennett said. "I had a new motivation coming into this year. The time off really gave me a chance to refocus and find my passion again."
Bennett has been consistent throughout his Flames career, going 13-7-3 with a 3.18 GAA in 2011-12 and 10-6 with a 3.10 GAA last year and boasting a 0.90 SP for his first three seasons. He has enjoyed this year more than any previous season.
|Caleb Grow (17) has proven himself a versatile player and hard worker since moving up from the DII team.|
One of the team's most improved players, Grow has played a steady role on Liberty's attack, scoring eight goals and adding 13 assists over his three-year DI career after netting 12 goals and distributing 13 assists as a freshman on the DII team.
Last season, he showed his versatility by dropping back to bolster an injury-depleted defense.
"We were looking for someone who could play D and, to his credit, he took the opportunity and rolled with it," Liberty Head Coach Kirk Handy said. "He's a guy who makes the most of every opportunity and he's done that every year. Caleb hasn't had the easy road. Every year he has had to battle for every bit of ice time he's got. He's shown up to play every night and he brings a consistent effort. He's worked hard to improve his game and to be a big part of our team."
Another senior who never suits up but makes sure the Flames are fully protected is Seth Hart, Liberty's third-year equipment manager from Sarasota, Fla. He will graduate this spring with a degree in Business Administration and a concentration in Project Management.
"I have traveled with the team everywhere from Arizona, New York, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, you name it," said Hart, who will make the trip to Newark, Del., for the March 6-11 ACHA National Championships.
As a freshman, Hart responded to a status post on Liberty's Club Sports Facebook page looking for someone to travel with the team and help out with cleaning, repairing, and replacing the hockey team's equipment.
"I've always enjoyed the sport and wanted to be a part of it," he said. "Anything dealing with their gear, I kind of orchestrate and look over. It's been a lot of fun. I've had a lot of laughs over the years, made some great friends, and it's really developed me as a person."
After graduation, Hart plans to stay at LaHaye as an ice center technician at the rink while training Ben Novak to take over his position as equipment manager before moving to Orlando, Fla., to start a career.