March 13, 2023 : By Ted Allen - Office of Communications & Public Engagement
Liberty University’s ACHA Division I women’s hockey team will battle for a record fifth consecutive national championship crown and the Flames’ Division I and II men’s teams will be targeting their first ACHA national championship trophies at the New England Sports Center in Marlborough, Mass., near Boston this weekend.
For the first time in the tournament’s 31-year history, all divisions will be competing at the same location during the same time frame. The 220,000-square-foot center has eight rinks to accommodate all 113 games involving 78 teams over a period of six days from Thursday through Tuesday. All games will be streamed live by Hockey TV.
As the No. 1 seed, the Lady Flames (23-2-1), who set an ACHA DI-record 57-game winning streak earlier this semester, won’t find out who they face in Saturday’s quarterfinal round until Friday, after two rounds of play-in 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.
“All we’ve got to do is take care of our business,” sixth-year Head Coach Chris Lowes said. “It doesn’t really matter at this point who we play. We’ve got to win three games, and I think we’ve got the ability to do that if we execute.”
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 conference champions in the WMCH (Women’s Midwest College Hockey) Tournament snapped by No. 2-ranked Midland (Neb.) in February.
“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 and confident team, and I think an inspired team, on the ice.”
He said the women’s tournament field is as wide open this year as he has ever experienced as a head coach at nationals.
“Every team looks a little different, and that’s what’s fun about nationals,” Lowes said. “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.”
The Division I men’s team (16-12-2) will open tournament play by challenging No. 12 Pittsburgh (20-7-3), the ESCHL regular-season and tournament champion, on Saturday at 10:15 a.m., with the winner likely advancing to play UNLV on Sunday at 10:15 a.m.
“This is the most exciting time of the year. It will be a fun environment,” Head Coach Kirk Handy said. “The guys have put themselves in a really good spot to be the No. 5 seed heading into the tournament.”
The Division I team is one of two independent programs in the national tournament field along with No. 1-ranked Minot State. The Flames have beaten each of the top four seeds in the tournament this season, winning two out of four games against No. 4 UNLV and No. 3 Adrian before splitting series with No. 2 Ohio and the top-ranked Beavers over the past month at the LaHaye Ice Center.
“Our group is resilient, and we are battle-tested,” Handy said. “They compete, they have shown that they want to get better and continue to push to be the best they can be. We’re focused on ourselves, making sure that we’re physically, spiritually and mentally ready to go.”
“These games are high-pressure, but it’s going to be super fun, every minute of it,” senior defenseman Colin Baird added, noting that the tournament is single-elimination. “As athletes, we love the pressure. Those are the moments you want to step up and play your best. I just think everybody wants to go out there and win for each other. There will be a lot of teams there, but we know that we can beat all of them, so we’re just going to go out and keep our head to the grindstone and get to work.”
The Flames’ DII men’s team (26-4-1) clinched the No. 1 ranking in the Southeast Region and one of eight autobids into the 16-team national field. They will play Iowa, the No. 4 team out of the Central, on Friday at 8:15 p.m.; Utah State, the No. 3-ranked team out of the West Region, on Saturday at 5:15 p.m.; and Northeastern, the No. 2-ranked team out of the Northeast Region, on Sunday at 8:15 p.m. Only the top team out of each pool will advance to the March 20-21 semifinals and championship game.