The next Hobey Baker Memorial Award winner won’t likely come from the U.S. Air Force Academy. But in listening to the Falcons’ coach and key players talk, this year has the potential to be an all-out “ultimate team” on the ice in Colorado Springs, with no single player taking the spotlight.
After a first-round overtime upset of Wayne State in the CHA tournament last season, Air Force fell in the semifinals to eventual champion Bemidji State. It’s the Falcons’ goal that with the type of team chemistry already exhibited in captain’s practices and team functions that the semifinals may be just a starting point come next March.
“This team really energizes me,” head coach Frank Serratore said. “They’re all fun to work with and they like to go out there and have fun. There’s no baggage on the team this year and not one bad apple. If the chemistry’s not right, that can make for a long, tough year, but this team is as cohesive as they come and we need to be the ultimate team. We don’t get the blue-chip players; we get the good second-level kids that we hope can make our 20 better than the other team’s 20 each and every night.”
The Falcons found out mid-summer that leading scorer Brandon Merkosky was transferring to Clarkson. But with the freshmen coming in and a corps of returning players, two of those returnees have little reason to worry.
“We don’t really have what you would call a standout guy,” junior defenseman Brian Gineo said. “We roll four lines and you really can’t expect any one guy to put all the scoring on. The chemistry is awesome. The frosh came and stepped right in and it’s hard to believe they weren’t on the team a year ago. That’s how well they fit in.”
“I can’t say that we have a weakness on this team,” said senior co-captain Matt Bader. “I’ve noticed that a couple guys from last year have come back and improved and I feel we have a very well-rounded team here. The freshmen have been incredible and have already become one of the guys.”
Serratore went on to say that he has a feeling about his team this year, a team he calls “the best I’ve had since I’ve been here and certainly the team with the toughest schedule.
“Our goal every year is to be the most difficult team to play against in the country,” Serratore added. “Right off the bat we play [at] Maine, [at] Union, then Denver and Colorado College and then we host Bemidji State to start conference play. Our [sports information director] was saying that it’s probably the toughest schedule since 1992 or 1993.
“But look at it like this. We’ve been rebuilding the past two years and now we have a solid foundation and solid players. The only thing that separates our top line from our fourth line is experience.
“People have asked me, ‘So what do you have this year?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know, but we have a whole lot of it.’ We have players with speed, players with skill, players that are physical and players that are good with the puck. We’re up for the challenge.”
Junior goalie Pete Foster came alive a year ago and posted five shutouts, tied for third-best in Division I. Foster also had a respectable 2.66 goals-against average and a .900 save percentage. Backup Ian Harper also had a goals against average under three (2.97) and should push Foster this season for playing time. Seldom-used Ben Worker may also figure into the equation.
Defensively, only two blueliners are gone from a year ago and the rest back along with freshmen Mike Mayra and Greg Flynn. Gineo anchors the back end along with senior co-captain Brooks Turnquist, whose kid brother, Blake, is also back for his second season in the forward role.
Up front, junior Andrew Ramsey is the top scorer back after a 25-point campaign in 2004-2005. Sophomore Eric Ehn tallied 22 points and sophomore Josh Print looks to improve on his seven-goal output.
“There’s been a lot of turnover in the CHA and we want to capitalize on that and just do as well as we can,” Gineo said. “The key is to be consistent. But I can’t say enough about our freshmen. Off the ice the whole team does everything together, but on the ice it can get intense. We might scream at someone for making a mistake on one shift, but we trust them enough to go out there on their next shift and compensate for it. That’s the kind of team I think we’re going to have this year.”
“This team is very tight,” said the second-year captain. “We all want what’s best for the good of the team. Last year, when I was voted captain as a junior, it was a bit of a surprise, but I didn’t change how I go about the game. This year, I guess you could say I see more of the administrative side where the younger guys come to me with problems and I get involved more.”
The stretch in which the Falcons really want to get involved is next March in Detroit at the CHA championships, hosted by Wayne State. As Serratore said about the CHA in general, “Anything can happen at any time in any game.”