Lady Flames cautiously optimistic about their shot at a fifth ACHA DI national title in a row
Liberty University’s four-time defending champion Division I women’s hockey team (23-2-1), which had an ACHA DI record 57-game winning streak snapped earlier this semester, secured the No. 1 seed for this weekend’s ACHA National Championships at the New England Sports Center in Marlborough, Mass., nonetheless.
However, sixth-year Head Coach Chris Lowes expects a much stronger test from a deeper field of competition at this year’s 10-team tournament than in recent seasons.
“It’s pretty wide-open,” he said, noting that the Lady Flames won’t find out who they face in Saturday’s quarterfinal contest until Friday, after two rounds of games between the Nos. 3-10 seeds in the tournament. Two teams will be eliminated and Liberty will play the lowest-remaining seed, no higher than No. 8 McKendree (Ill.) University, which dealt the Lady Flames their first loss on Jan. 20. “It’s going to be one of the more exciting national tournaments that I’ve been a part of, just with the depth and the number of teams, especially those first two days. Really, it wouldn’t surprise me if the 10 or the 9 seed upset the 3 or the 4. They’re all very talented teams.”
Led by First-Team All-American junior forward and alternate captain Brityn Fussy and All-Rookie team freshman goalie Alex Keith, the Lady Flames are hungry after having their three-year run as WMCH Tournament champions snapped by No. 2-ranked Midland (Neb.) in the Feb. 25 championship game near St. Louis.
“I like where we’re at,” Lowes said. “We’ve been sitting here for two weeks with that fresh memory of the loss. That’s motivation and fuel and I think our girls have responded well to it. We’ll put a good, confident team, and I think an inspired team, on the ice.”
He said the Lady Flames are fully focused on the task at hand, with a depth of leadership and maturity in the locker room and on the ice.
“All we’ve got to do is take care of our business,” Lowes said. “It doesn’t really matter who we play at this point. We’ve got to win three games (and) I think we’ve got the ability to do that if we execute.”
The team has benefited from a couple-weeks’ break to recharge for nationals, targeting a return trip to Monday’s 1 p.m. championship game.
“It’s been good, a combination of a bit of rest, a bit of healing, and then we’ve had some good skates,” Lowes said. “We’ve been trying to ramp up a bit and we (had) a couple skates this (past) weekend, just getting in as many touches as we can, fine-tuning little details and just making sure we’re firing on all cylinders.”
He said the team is nearly at full strength, with only a few nagging injuries.
“A key to having success there is just being healthy and having everyone healthy at the same time, and we’re close,” said Lowes, who has a strong arsenal of veteran leaders and young guns throughout his lineup.
“We’re talented,” he said. “I like our group. I like what we do on the ice. Every team looks a little different, and that’s what’s fun about nationals, too. Different girls are going to step up in different ways, whether it’s production and scoring or just leadership. We’ve got a room full of vets that have been there before and know what it takes and that’s a good thing.”
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer