Men’s D2 hockey headed to Boston for ACHA National Tournament

Finishing the regular season with 26 wins for the second consecutive year, the men’s D2 hockey team is poised for another ACHA National Tournament run. 

After suffering defeat in the final round of pool play in last year’s tournament, the Flames return to the postseason as the Southeast region’s No. 1 seed, set to go head-to-head with the University of Iowa March 17.

While the shortcomings of last year’s tournament had a lasting impact, they also provided valuable lessons to be learned by returning players and sixth-year Head Coach Ben Hughes. 

“I think they learned that every game gets harder,” Hughes said. “You almost want to expect the opposite and think it’s gonna get easier from here, but it actually gets harder mentally and physically … But I think we’ve had such a high strength of schedule. We’re used to playing these top teams, multiple days in a row. I think that’s the benefit of kind of how we schedule the year.”

The Flames faced stout ACHA teams all season long, but the most daunting stretch for Hughes’ team may have been the final three matchups of the regular season. 

Liberty made a trip to the Northeast Feb. 10-12, taking on three different opponents in three different states in that span of time. The Flames skated away 2-1 from the road stretch, suffering their first loss of the semester to UMass, 3-1. What may have appeared as a late-season setback, however, was nothing but a benefit in the eyes of Hughes. 

“We were hoping to have hard games played, then have to like find out how to come back from behind on the road,” Hughes said. “If you’re not the home team, you’re not used to playing in an environment you’ve never been in before. All those intangibles that go into one’s mindset and the psychology behind it all, I think, really can and did benefit our team.”

A young group comprised of mostly freshmen and sophomores, the Flames are a unit fueled by their leadership. Their dominance stems from the steady composure of their captains, who have been around to see the team in the highs and the lows. 

Among these leaders is defenseman Alex Norwinski, who is preparing to take the ice as a Flame for the final time in Boston. 

The Virginia native has donned the Liberty sweater for over 100 games, but he is having possibly his best season yet with 13 goals and 17 assists on the year. 

Having been to the national tournament a time or two, the experience Norwinski brings to the ice is something the Flames don’t take for granted.

“He has confidence not just in his play, but in his decisions,” Hughes said. “He’s like, ‘Hey, guys, we don’t need to sweat the little things’ or ‘Hey, this is the right thing to do.’ He can discern very wisely, I think, but he has the confidence to do it because of the experience.”

Another unwavering leader for this group has been captain Josh Harrell. While the 22-year-old is in just his second season as a Flame, he plays a critical role in the identity of a team that brings heart every time it steps on the ice.

“I think what we’ve seen is that these guys collectively have the desire to want to win and love each other,” Hughes said. “Love each other, but also, win for each other, but love each other through (that). I think it all really starts with Josh Harrell. That’s his heart. He’s just the ultimate competitor and wants to love and serve on his teammates.”

Now, as the long-anticipated ACHA National Tournament nears, Hughes has begun to amp things up for his group. Having played college hockey himself for the Flames just six years back, he has seen first-hand the physical and mental toughness the national tournament requires. 

“This week, we’ve been giving it our all. We don’t normally skate every day. We normally skate three days a week,” Hughes said. “Let’s skate five days in a row, just like how nationals will be five games in a row.”

The first round of pool play now awaits the Flames, as they’re set to meet the University of Iowa Friday, March 17 at 8:15 p.m. The regular season success has been enjoyable for Hughes’ group, but he ultimately knows that their best hockey must be played in Massachusetts. 

“Identity wise, a huge takeaway from us from nationals has been we just have to find a way to be tougher,” Hughes said. “We have to find a way to just have more grit in our game. You have to be tougher mentally and physically … we’re preparing them for battle.”

Cory is the sports editor for the Liberty Champion. Follow her on Twitter

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