At this time last year, Alabama-Huntsville took its standard preseason excitement on the road — to Wisconsin. Then Denver. And then Minnesota.
Six losses later, by the time the Chargers had returned home to face Air Force, an already veteran team had aged a generation. UAH would lose just one of its next 16 games, but it ran out of gas by season’s end. A first-place regular season finish became a disappointing semifinal elimination in the CHA playoffs.
The Chargers may have graduated nine seniors, but the program has learned a valuable lesson — this year begins with a four-game homestand.
“We got good experience from the first six tough games last year,” said Alabama-Huntsville coach Doug Ross. “It made us stronger at the time, but we faded down the stretch. We are in a better position to start this season.”
Overall, the Chargers will need the early boost because UAH does not return the horses that it had last year. Gone are a trio of all-CHA players, defensemen Ryan Leasa and Travis Butler and forward Steve Charlebois. In addition to gutting the blueline, their graduation subtracts 68 points from the stat sheet.
UAH still has its best thoroughbred, junior Jared Ross (20g, 20a). Ross is the centerpiece of the UAH attack, using his speed and elusiveness to maximize his diminutive 5-9, 165-pound frame. He will need a new linemate as he combined for 75 points with the graduated Mike Funk last season. The first line will be heavily leaned upon to score for a team that is not nearly as deep as it was a year ago.
“[Jared] Ross leads the attack and really has the ability to sprint up and down the ice,” said Doug Ross. “Even with our graduated players, we may be an overall faster team and have to rely more on our speed and skill up front as well as our specialty teams.”
Freshmen, including touted prospects David Nimmo and Dominik Rozman, will get every opportunity to fill in for the graduated talent.
“Our first-year players have the talent to be top offensive guys,” Ross said. “We should be able to have four good lines.”
The defense will rely mostly on sophomores and juniors to compensate for the graduation of its two outstanding players of a year ago. Jeremey Schreiber showed promise as a freshman last year with 21 points. Doug Watkins and Travis Brown are less flashy, but solid. There may not be a senior in the starting six for the Chargers.
It will take some time before the UAH blueline coheres and therefore there will be some pressure on the offense to score even more.
The one sure bet to improve for UAH is goaltending. Sophomore Scott Monroe had an excellent first campaign, making the second team all-CHA while posting a 2.80 GAA with a .917 save percentage.
“Monroe did a terrific job acclimating himself to college hockey last year and he should be even better this year,” Ross said.
On paper, UAH is not as talented as last year’s version, nor Bemidji or Niagara this year. However, if it gets off to a good start, the possibilities are there to overachieve.
“We have got enough returning players who earned valuable experience last year,” Ross said. “They learned just how tough it is to play in this conference.”
The Chargers may just find it a little too tough to return to where they were a year ago.