If you wanted to apply a tagline to Alabama-Huntsville’s 2010-11 season before the games even started, three words would seem to apply best:
New all over.
Not just in coaching. Chris Luongo has taken over for Danton Cole, who left after three seasons in charge to head the USA Hockey National Team Development Program.
Also in league affiliation, or lack thereof. The Chargers field Division I’s only men’s independent program, an island that puts them in the red when it comes to a balance of home and away games.
And also in personnel. UAH is looking for a new starting goaltender and replacements for three regular defensemen and a bunch of forwards. It enters the season with 12 freshmen (one a redshirt) on a 24-man roster.
Add it up, putting an emphasis on the number of rookies, and there’s a team that will have to do a lot of growing along the way.
“You’re definitely going to be a better team at the end of the year than you are right now,” Luongo said. “If you’re not, you’re not doing a very good job of coaching.
“That being said, we have a lot of young guys but we have a lot of guys that have been a part of a successful team and they’ve grown a lot as players over the last three years with Danton, and I’ve been involved with two of those years [as an assistant coach]. We have some good experience that we’re going to be drawing on, and we’re going to look to those guys for a lot of things. And not only to carry the load but to lead the way for the young guys and get us in the right direction.”
Goaltender Cameron Talbot backstopped the Chargers to the NCAA tournament last season as playoff tournament champions in the final season of the CHA. But he signed with the New York Rangers in the offseason, leaving no collegiate netminding experience on this season’s roster.
Redshirt freshman John Griggs and newcomers C.J. Groh and Clarke Saunders all are in the mix to take over from Talbot.
On defense, senior captain Ryan Burkholder is one of the obvious strengths of the team, and he’ll have to be strong to not only bring along the defense but the group of newcomers as a whole.
“He never cheats you on effort, and when he plays within his skill set, he does a real good job,” Luongo said. “He’s got that role as a defensive stopper.”
Senior Matt Baxter, junior Tom Durnie and sophomore Curtis deBruyn figure to see plenty of time on the blue line.
The top three scorers from last year’s team — Cody Campbell, Andrew Coburn and Matti Jarvinen — are gone, although the school is working on an appeal to the NCAA to get another season for Campbell, whose clock ran out because he started taking college classes while he was playing Junior B, Luongo said.
That puts a lot on the shoulders of senior Neil Ruffini, who led the team with nine goals last season, and Chris Fairbanks.
“If they were just to be the same, we’d be in good shape,” Luongo said. “But I know that both of those guys, their conditioning is better. You can see the maturity in the sense that they’re more relaxed on the ice and they know what to expect. I think we’re going to see a bump out of them right from the get-go.”
After two games at home against Ferris State to open the season, the Chargers set off on an eight-game road stretch. They also have a six-game road swing later in the season (eight if you include two games against Merrimack in Nashville), part of a schedule that sees 22 of their 32 games against NCAA teams coming away from home.
“In that situation, you get into that ‘deja vu all over again’ mind-set,” Luongo said, “and it can get a little numbing if you allow it.”