DIII men eliminated in pool play at first CHF Nationals, return optimistic for future
Liberty University’s Division III men’s hockey team experienced similar results in the inaugural College Hockey Federation (CHF) National Championships in West Chester, Pa., as it had in the program’s first ACHA DIII National Championships in 2016 in Michigan, with a season-ending 0-3 showing in its pool.
The Flames (15-10-1), who entered the 32-team tournament as the No. 13 seed, lost to No. 21 Buffalo State, 7-3, in Friday morning’s opener before falling by a 4-2 final to No. 28 College of Charleston on Saturday and No. 5 Babson (Mass.) College, 9-3 on Sunday night.
“It was a weird weekend, really,” Liberty second-year Head Coach Josh Graham said. “Seeds 1 through 4 in the tournament all were eliminated, so there were lots of upsets this weekend. The rankings were way off. Buffalo State was one of the better teams we’ve played this season.”
Though the Flames were favored to win their first two contests and go into Sunday’s final game of pool play battling the fifth-ranked Beavers to advance to the quarterfinals, it didn’t pan out that way.
“We just didn’t get the job done,” Graham said. “Give Buffalo State a lot of credit. They have a couple good skaters and they played hard all three periods and we just weren’t up to the task that day.”
Liberty actually outshot the Bengals, 36-35 for the game, and led 1-0 after the first period on a goal by junior center Christian Kline assisted by sophomore forward William Smiley. However, the Flames were outscored 4-1 in the second, when junior wing Kenny Fogarty netted their only goal off an assist from freshman linemate Carson Desmarais, and 3-1 in the third, when Fogarty finished a feed from junior center Johnny Kettelle. Graduate goalie Clayton Pierce (28 saves) took the loss.
Then, after a scoreless first period against Charleston, Liberty was outscored 2-1 in both the second and third, with Fogarty cutting the deficit to 2-1 with 1:28 left in the second off assists from Kettelle and Desmarais before Kettelle trimmed it to 3-2 by putting away a pass from Fogarty with 9:16 remaining in regulation. For the contest, Liberty outshot the Cougars, 38-29, and junior goalie Kyle Wesbury made 25 saves in defeat.
“We basically split with Charleston this year, both in the regular season and postseason, when we beat them in the (ACCHL) Championships and they beat us at (CHF) Nationals,” Graham said. “They battled really hard and made our lives really difficult on Saturday.”
With frustration from what Graham considered three officiating mistakes that heavily influenced the outcome of Saturday’s contest carrying over into Sunday’s final game of pool play, Babson pulled away from the Flames in the second and third periods.
“If there was something on the line, it would have been a very good hockey game, but Babson had already qualified (for Monday’s quarterfinals), so it wasn’t really trying and we kind of mailed it in,” Graham said. “Overall, it was super disappointing that we come home 0-3, but if you look at this team’s body of work this year, we were a legitimate No. 1 seed in our conference and made it to the conference championship game for the second year in a row. Those disappointments will serve as blessings for the future and make us a better team next year.”
The Flames will return 20 out of their 25 players, with an influx of recruits making the 2022-23 season even more promising.
“I love all 20 guys coming back next year, when it’s going to be super tough to make our team,” Graham said. “We’re going to be a better hockey team next year and we’re a team that I feel should be making nationals regularly. We’ll keep building.”
Graham and his team will get a look at some of the prospects at the Flames Select Camp from May 11-13 and U-20 Development Camp in June at the LaHaye Ice Center before tryouts are scheduled for the last week of August.
“There is a lot of optimism and excitement for next year,” Graham said.
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer