Young, talented DII Flames dialed in for season-opening series against Ohio State
As will be evident when Liberty University’s ACHA Division II men’s hockey team opens its 2022-23 season with a series against Ohio State on Friday at 9:45 p.m. and Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at the LaHaye Ice Center, the Flames are experiencing a youth movement while maintaining high expectations and standards of excellence.
“It’s kind of a new look for our group and establishing that identity is going to be super important,” Flames sophomore forward and head captain Josh Harrell said. “I see us having a lot of potential and becoming a really united team throughout the season.”
For the second year in a row, nearly half of the players on the roster are freshmen, building a solid foundation for the future of the program.
“After going through tryouts with all these guys, I’m super excited about what we have for the year,” sophomore defenseman and alternate captain Rece Poulin added. “That freshman class that we had last year coming up as sophomores, we are super close-knit, so being able to have a freshman class this large and as skilled as they are, it’s going to be really big for the team and the culture that we are building.”
Liberty sixth-year Head Coach Ben Hughes took his team to Stone Ridge in nearby Concord for a retreat over the weekend of Sept. 2-3 to give the newcomers and returning players a better opportunity to bond as brothers in Christ and warriors on the ice.
“We are building a legacy of Champions, which is our vision for the DII men’s program,” he said. “’Champions’ is all-encompassing. It’s in how we do everything — showing up on time, getting the grades in school, how we treat others, including our teammates, how we live our lives. We want to fight for and to champion doing everything right and building a legacy.”
He likes the character and resolve of the freshmen class, and the examples the returning players are setting.
“The new guys all want to be here for the right reasons,” Hughes said. “They all want to get a degree, grow in their faith, and play hockey for Liberty. That’s a trifecta for us. It’s about growing, mentally physically, spiritually, and professionally, and I’m excited to have each one of them.”
He is still discovering the strengths of the underclassmen and all the talents they bring to the table.
“They’re all going to provide value in all different aspects — on the ice, spiritually, physically, and emotionally,” Hughes said. “They are all able to speak into different areas of the dynamic of the team we need.”
After more than a decade of competition in the Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Hockey (MACH) conference, winning the past two tournament titles, Liberty is going independent this season.
“We loved being in the MACH and playing for a championship,” Hughes said. “Now we are excited about being able to play teams we don’t normally play. We have some huge games this semester and we want to do everything we can to be ready for them.”
The team to beat is once again the University of Mary (N.D.), the two-time defending national champion that will move up to the ACHA Division I ranks next season.
“The first year (at ACHA Division II in 2018-19) they were the No. 1-ranked team, but they were ineligible for nationals,” Hughes said. “Then, they were ranked No. 1 again in 2019-20 when COVID hit and won the next two national titles, so if they win again, they will have swept ACHA DII for five years in their minds, which is not a bad history and motivator.”
The Flames will face the Marauders, along with Marion (Wisc.) and Minnesota, in a showcase event from Sept. 30-Oct. 2 in Minneapolis. Then, they will host Mary in a two-game series Oct. 14-15.
The Flames’ schedule will have them battle-tested going into the eight-team South Regional Tournament, if they do not receive an autobid to the March 16-21 ACHA DII National Championships in Marlboro, Mass., as one of the top two ranked teams in the region.
Besides Harrell and graduate forward and alternate captain Josh Malin, and Pulin and graduate defenseman and alternate captain Alex Norwinski, Hughes will look for leadership from throughout the lineup.
“That’s the beauty of this year’s team, that the player of the game can be anyone on any given night,” he said. “All four lines are skilled and will be able to create chances and to compete, … with every shift building positive momentum.”
Hughes said speed and strength on the ice, as well as determination and grit, are factors the Flames will look to bring consistently.
“We want to be a team that’s hard to play against, that can make plays and play fast,” he said. “Ultimately, we want to play hard and we want to play with hard puck movement, moving with or without the puck.”
Senior Stephen Sanders and sophomore Lane Skon are the Flames’ two remaining goalies after graduating All-American Dakota Cyhaniuk last spring.
“Our goal would be to have them battle it out and for both of them to be able to get enough games where they have the confidence needed to go into the national tournament with two starting goalies,” Hughes said.
The Flames are united in purpose with a common goal in mind.
“I think we all know what our destination is and that’s becoming national champions this year, so it’s a matter of how we get there and focusing on the process,” Harrell said.
“We definitely have some big expectations, not only from people looking in, but of ourselves,” Poulin added. “It’s good that we have these goals, and a lot of people say these expectations are hard to live up to, (but) I have no doubt in my mind that this team is one that can do that.”
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer; Video edited by Kylee Lilge/Club Sports Video & Media Coordinator