DIII men’s hockey eliminated from AAU National Championships in pool play
Liberty University’s College Hockey Federation (CHF) Division III men’s hockey team, seeded No. 7 out of 32 teams in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Collegiate National Championships at the Ice Line Quad Rinks in West Chester, Pa., finished 0-2-1 and was unable to advance out of its pool for the second season in a row.
The Flames (19-10) tied No. 26 Fordham University in Friday’s opener, 4-4, before falling to No. 18 Alabama, 5-1, on Saturday, and No. 10 South Carolina, 7-6 in overtime, on Sunday.
“They were three good games, and we took two to overtime, but couldn’t put them away,” Liberty third-year Head Coach Josh Graham said. “We had a tremendous year this year, setting a new program record for wins in a season and having a perfect (ACCHL) conference record (10-0), so there were lots of positives to take away and I would say that we are moving in the right direction, slowly but surely.”
Against Fordham, Graham said the Flames stalled offensively after opening a 2-0 lead by the end of the first period. Liberty outshot the Rams 44-14 for the game, including 16-4 in the second period, when it was outscored, 3-1.
“We fell asleep at the wheel for about 10 minutes there in the second period,” he said. “We knew they were a very defensive-minded team and relied on other teams to make mistakes. We played a really good first period and we just thought the game was at hand and took the foot off the gas. We missed defensive zone responsibilities, got a little lazy in the offensive zone, and weren’t in position to counter their odd-man rushes. They scored three goals in like four minutes and the next thing we knew, it was 3-2 them.”
That trend continued against Alabama, which seized a 3-0 advantage after the first period and capitalized on three power-play goals before being whistled for six penalties in the third period, when the Flames scored their lone goal on a power play.
“We knew they were going to be quick, but I don’t think we anticipated how quick they were,” Graham said of the Frozen Tide, which eventually advanced out of the pool. “We got behind the 8 ball, down 3-0 after the first, but by the third period, we were outplaying Alabama. It was just too little, too late.”
Liberty and South Carolina traded goals early and were tied at 3 after the first period, before the Gamecocks captured a 5-3 lead in the second. They were called for eight consecutive penalties in a stretch of 10 minutes late in the second period and early in the third, when the Flames scored two power-play goals to tie the game at 5.
As Christian Garafolo did to start the game’s scoring, fellow sophomore forward Luke Bessire netted a shorthanded unassisted goal to give the Flames their second lead with 6:21 remaining in regulation. South Carolina responded by pulling its goalie and manufacturing the tying goal with 47 seconds to play, before scoring the game-winner exactly 4:00 into the 10-minute overtime.
Binghamton (N.Y.) University, which dealt No. 3-seeded Tampa its first loss of the season in the semifinals, defeated Fairfield (Conn.) University, 6-3, in Wednesday’s CHF championship game.
Liberty will graduate six seniors off this season’s roster, including Kenny Fogarty, who became the second player in program history to score 100 points, and fellow forwards Christian Kline and Andrew Pascarella and Cameron Tobey as well as defenseman Jordan Chamberlain. The Flames will return senior forward and head captain Jaime Ross, who will pursue his master’s degree and has two years of eligibility left.
To prepare the Flames to make a deeper run at next year’s national tournament, Graham is loading up the fall semester schedule with more challenging opponents.
“We need to learn to play against top-level teams consistently, and that is my responsibility,” he said. “Our highest-ranked teams this season were Penn State Harrisburg and Delaware, which were ranked 12th and 15th (respectively). We need to play teams like that all of the time instead of teams ranked in the 25-50 range, which make it hard to get ready for nationals.”
The Flames will open the 2023-24 campaign against the same South Carolina squad that ended their season and they will again face Delaware and Penn State Harrisburg. Additionally, Graham is working on lining up a Fall semester showcase against a few other teams ranked in the top 15.
“We’re going to have to make some decisions on if going independent a better option for us for the future,” Graham said, noting the ACCHL is the weakest conference in the CHF. “That would free us up to go down to Florida and up to New York to play higher-ranked teams and we may have to do that if we want to be competitive.”
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer