Flames back in the rink
The Liberty University men’s D1 hockey team ignited the 2023 season Sept. 15 with a brutal overtaking of NC State, conquering the Icepack in front of a sold-out home crowd , 7-2.
Entering the LaHaye Ice Center, the energy was palpable. The lines of fans were beginning to fill the rafters far ahead of game time, with a bright bustling red ocean shaking the walls of the rink.
While Liberty was certainly expected to take out the ACHA D2 Icepack, NC State’s stout defense in front of the net challenged Liberty consistently throughout the first period. While Liberty maintained the majority of puck possession, no Flame could light the lamp. That is, until freshman defenseman Kevin Bite netted the first goal of the season in the final 11 seconds of the period, assisted by senior forwards DJ Schwenke and Brett Gammer.
With the first score now on the board, the Flames offense came to life in the ensuing periods. Sophomore defenseman Lazarus Kaebel opened scoring in the second with a screaming shot from the top of the slot that deflected off Icepack bodies before dribbling into the net. Not even 10 seconds later, junior forward Jacob Kalandyk gathered a pass from senior forward Jackson Vercellono and sent it to the back of the net.
Now, holding a three-goal advantage, Vercellono located a soaring Kalandyk once again in the Icepack zone, who approached NC State goaltender Isaac Tawyer and sent the puck passed him, putting the LaHaye Ice Center into a frenzy.
While NC State managed to net a few goals of their own, it wasn’t enough to maintain pace with Liberty. In the third period, freshman forward Ryan Finch and freshman defender Martin Mox scored their first goals as Flames, with three freshmen finding the net on the night.
“I thought they did great,” Liberty Head Coach Kirk Handy said of his freshmen. “A sold-out crowd and their first game at Liberty … It’s a tough environment to play in.”
The final goal on the night was a powerplay shot ripped from the top of the right circle from senior forward Captain Matt Bartel, capping off the seven-goal performance.
There was a total of 11 penalties, four from NC State and seven from Liberty.
“I think the positives were that, offensively, we were strong. The things to work on are defensively … We took too many penalties,” Handy said.
As the clock counted down, Liberty fans geared up to celebrate their conquest. When the clock hit zero, the Flames’ fans exploded. Teams gathered in the center of the rink, shook hands and embraced one another in a word of prayer.
“I feel like we have some kinks to work out,” Vercellono said. “More people are learning what hockey is, more people are excited to come to watch. Us, as a team, our chemistry is really good. We really spent time bonding this year and growing our brotherhood … It makes it really fun to play.”
When all was said and done, the double doors of the LaeHaye Ice Center released Flames fans into the night victorious. Liberty will return to the ice for a long-awaited matchup with the Minot State Beavers next weekend, with a Midnight Mayhem puck drop Friday, Sept. 22 at the LaHaye Ice Center.
Richards is a sports reporter for the Liberty Champion