DIII Flames thrilled to compete for first CHF National Championship in Pa.
It has been six seasons since Liberty University’s ACHA Division III men’s hockey team advanced to the ACHA National Championships in Grand Rapids, Mich., where the Flames lost all three of their pool play matchups and were quickly eliminated.
This season, its first competing primarily as a College Hockey Federation (CHF) program, Liberty (13-7-1) qualified for a run at the inaugural CHF National Championships, set for Friday through Wednesday at the Ice Line Quad Rinks in West Chester, Pa.
The Flames are one of 32 predominantly East Coast teams in the tournament, with champions from the eight pools of four teams advancing to Monday’s quarterfinals. Seeded No. 13, Liberty is scheduled to open pool play Friday at 10 a.m. against No. 21 Buffalo State before taking on No. 28 College of Charleston for the fourth time this season on Saturday at 6 p.m. and No. 5 Babson (Mass.) College, the Northeast Independent Hockey Conference champion, on Sunday at 7 p.m. All games will be webcast live through a pay-per-view streaming service.
“The guys are pretty excited,” said Flames second-year Head Coach Josh Graham, who was named ACCHL Coach of the Year for the second year in a row. “There is no one left on the team from the last time we went to nationals. The team is looking really good and it’s going to be a good experience.”
The Flames won two of three meetings with Charleston, the last by a 7-1 count in the ACCHL Tournament semifinals. Liberty then lost for the second year in a row to Coastal Carolina in the ACCHL Championship game, ending their nine-game winning streak.
“Going on a nine-game winning streak was good for our program, and allowed us to remember that hard work is what got us this far,” Graham said. “While it stung, that loss to Coastal Carolina is a good reminder for us as we head into nationals that we have three really hard teams we’ve got to play. We will take what we learned from Coastal and apply it in the first game.”
The program is undergoing a youth movement, with 20-22 players returning, for which this weekend’s tournament will be invaluable.
“We only have five guys who won’t be coming back, three graduate students (including alternate captain Jerrell Campbell) and two seniors graduating,” Graham said. “But we will return three of our four captains,” head captain Jaime Ross and alternates Kenny Fogarty and Christian Kline.
All four captains are forwards, but Ross may move back on defense to shore up the ranks.
“We can certainly score goals,” Graham said. “We scored over 100 goals in 22 games, but our big thing is playing defense and if we can do a really good job of playing D in all three zones, that’s going to push us over and make us a really tough team to play against. It just needs to be a team effort, from all 21 guys rotating into the lineup.”
Freshmen Ben Wines and Jake Nole have developed into solid defensemen, complementing seniors Jordan Chamberlain and Mike Eisaman, and Ross, a junior.
“Jaime’s skating ability has provided a really good anchor on the back end,” Graham said.
Before the ACCHL final, when the Flames allowed the Chanticleers to score two power-play goals, Liberty’s penalty kill unit had been unscored upon this semester.
“If we can stay out of the penalty box and be disciplined, that’s going to put us in a really good spot,” Graham said.
He plans to platoon junior Kyle Wesbury, the ACCHL goalie of the year, and graduate Clayton Pierce in goal this weekend.
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer