When Air Force lost 4-3 to Minnesota in last year’s NCAA tournament, you might have thought there would never be a game any more heartbreaking. The heavy underdog Falcons held a two-goal lead in the third period, only to watch it slip away.
At the time, many also felt that the close game was a moral victory for Air Force. It was, after all, their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance, and many felt the club might have been a two- or three-goal underdog.
So Saturday, when the Falcons once again came as close as possible to upsetting top-seeded Miami in the Northeast Regional semifinal, this time letting a 2-1 third period lead slip away and finally falling in overtime when Miami’s Justin Mercier lifted a backhanded over the shoulder of Air Force goaltender Andrew Volkening at 15:21 over overtime, you might think this was once again a moral victory for Air Force and head coach Frank Serratore.
“Minnesota gets here every year,” said Serratore. “Michigan gets here every year. Miami can get here every year. We’re not going to get here every year. We’re only going to have so many chances. I could say that I’m happy to be here, but that’s not the case, I’ll take these two [losses] to my grave.”
Truthfully, the pill might be a little more difficult to swallow a second time for Serratore and his team. However, Serratore certainly has plenty to brag about after Saturday’s loss.
His club got off to the ugliest of starts, allowing Miami to get on the scoreboard just 19 seconds into the game.
Said Serratore, “My game plan was to get off to a great start. That went out the window pretty much right away. We had to go to Plan B.”
They also had to battle an officiating crew that, putting it mildly had an “off-day,” with the Falcons the victim of numerous questionable calls and non-calls.
Still, the Falcons never quit and, in fact outplayed the RedHawks for much of the second period, during which Derrick Burnett and Josh Print each buried hard-working blue-collar goals to give the Falcons the lead heading to the third.
It even seemed like destiny was on Air Force’s side, as the RedHawks leading scorer Ryan Jones missed a wide-open net in the middle frame and then Volkening somehow made an incredible stick save later in the frame that gave the Falcons the momentum in the game.
Once again, it simply wasn’t meant to be.
If you look for silver linings, as it is almost critical that a coach must do after a game like this, there were plenty.
Besides just the gusty effort that put the Falcons in a position to win the game, Saturday’s game also saw the return of Air Force standout senior Eric Ehn. A Hobey Baker finalist a year ago, Ehn broke a bone in his shin on January 19 and had what many thought was season-ending surgery three days later.
The ability of Air Force to win the Atlantic Hockey championship and advance to the NCAA tournament gave Ehn just enough recovery time, meaning he could suit up for one final game.
“For me, it was pretty magical,” said Ehn. “Not just that I had the chance to play, but for my team to go out and win the Atlantic Hockey championship. I was so proud of them that I could go out on the ice one more time with them.”
Ehn and his six fellow seniors have now played that final game, possibly the final game they’ll all play, as each will now become officers in the U.S. Air Force. The class may not have an NCAA tournament win on their resume, but they certainly had plenty to brag about when they get older.
“I’m so proud of our players,” said Serratore. “They put us on the map. The Air Force Academy, most people didn’t even know we were a Division I program. These players validated a lot of things winning back-to-back Atlantic Hockey championships.
“Once is luck, twice is skill. We’re not a one-hit wonder. We’re not a one-man band.”
Yes, the Falcons are on the map, and though he may worry about getting back to the NCAA tournament, Serratore should feel confident that this program can and will get back.
As they say, third time’s a charm.