New players add fresh wind to the Flames’ DIII men’s hockey fire
Eleven freshmen newcomers have given Liberty University’s ACHA Division III men’s hockey team a spark and vitality that could take it a long way in the 2021-22 season, which starts this Friday at 10:15 p.m. and Saturday at 11:45 a.m. against California University of Pennsylvania at the LaHaye Ice Center (LIC).
“We’ve got 17 freshmen and sophomores to go with 10 upperclassmen and two graduate students, so we’ve got a lot of fresh faces,” Flames second-year Head Coach Josh Graham said. “The freshmen we do have I’m really excited about.”
One of them, right wing Eric Abbate, will join junior center Jaime Ross and graduate forward Jerrell Campbell to form Liberty’s top line.
“He’s thriving there right now and he’s going to have a lot of success at the DIII level,” Graham said.
Two other freshmen forwards, Luke Bessire and Ethan Dunn, have excelled in preseason practices playing with senior Will Fortugno.
“Their line is jelling really well,” Graham said. “On the back end, Aaron Spuhler and Jake Nole are doing really well. We’ve got a really young defensive corps and there’s a learning curve with them, but I’ve been very, very pleased with the progress everybody’s been making the past few weeks and I’m really excited to start playing games.”
In goal, the Flames feature Clayton Pierce, who won the position over fellow graduate Sam Bell and sophomore Kyle Wesbury. Pierce served equipment manager for the DII team last season after starting his career at Liberty on that squad and playing three seasons at the DIII level.
“Clayton decided he wanted to play another year and he worked his butt off over the summer and he was clearly the guy,” Graham said. “He established himself pretty early in tryouts.”
Graham said Pierce’s maturity level as a 24-year-old will benefit him in pressure situations.
“He’s going to be able to mentally process the stress and the balance and all that a lot better because he has more life experience, and that’s going to help him be really steady in the net,” Graham said. “In practices, he’s been super consistent, and he provides a level of goaltending that we feel confident he’s going to give us a chance (to win) every night.”
On Monday, Ross was designated as the Flames’ head captain while fellow junior forwards Kenny Fogarty and Christian Kline as well as Campbell — who works as a graduate assistant in the LU Shepherd office and as the men’s soccer team’s spiritual leader — were selected to serve as his alternate captains.
“Those four guys are our leadership group,” Graham said. “We’re really happy to have a group of upperclassmen. Jerrell was a big part of the DII team and now he can provide that same leadership at the DIII level and we’re really excited about that.”
This weekend’s series will be the first-ever meeting between the DIII Flames and Cal-Penn, a perennial championship contender in its conference of the ACHA.
“They played two weeks ago, but those were their first games in two years,” Graham said. “Knowing they’re a better ACHA program, a stronger team that will motivate us and help us to prepare. If we have a good weekend against them, I feel pretty good about where our season’s going to be as well.”
Liberty will play as members of both the ACHA and the College Hockey Federation (CHF), which it joined last season. It has maintained membership in the Atlantic Coast Collegiate Hockey League (ACCHL). reaching the ACCHL tournament finals for the first time in nine years from March 21-23 in Winston-Salem, N.C.
This season, the Flames have six ACHA games and 16 CHF games on their schedule, with two games each against CHF opponents High Point, East Carolina, Christopher Newport, Coastal Carolina, College of Charleston, Georgia Tech, Kennesaw, and Navy. Outside of Stevenson, Rowan, Cal-Penn, Georgia Tech, and Kennesaw, the rest of the 22-game regular-season schedule is against ACCHL opponents.
“At least for the next two or three years, our focus is going to be on the CHF, where there’s 15 teams in a three-hour radius in North and South Carolina and Maryland,” Graham said, noting that there are now 118 Division III teams in the ACHA and 115 in the CHF with Maryland and West Virginia set to join the ACCHL as CHF teams next season. “We don’t play enough ACHA games to qualify for the ACHA National Championships, which only have a 16-team field.”
Liberty will host this season’s 27th ACCHL Championships, from Feb. 25-27 at the LIC, where the final four teams in the upper division will secure bids to the CHF National Championships, a 32-team tournament in West Chester, Pa.
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer; Video by Patrick Strawn/Club Sports Director of Video & Media