Road is rough on Alabama-Huntsville, but Chargers see positives

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The men’s college hockey world was forever changed when the WCHA opened its doors to allow new members Nebraska-Omaha and Bemidji State to join. The change affected more than just the WCHA schools as it affected the landscape of college hockey in general. One team left out of the transition was Alabama-Huntsville, which found itself on the outside looking in on all NCAA Division I hockey conferences.

“It has been an interesting ride for all of us,” Chargers coach Chris Luongo said of the experience the team has gone through this season.

One of the first challenges facing the Chargers was coming up with a schedule. With no CHA slate to contend with, the Chargers built an ambitious schedule around opposing teams’ free weekends, hoping that might help entice young players, and provide possible suitors the chance to see what they could offer. What they ended up with was a schedule that included four consecutive road weekends against Wisconsin, Bowling Green, Michigan State and Ohio State.

“This season has been a unique and interesting experience,” said Luongo. “All of these teams were top teams in their respective leagues.”

The Chargers also traveled to face Merrimack, Colorado College, Nebraska-Omaha and Ferris State on consecutive weekends to close out the NCAA portion of their season. (They close things out with a home series against the U.S. Under-18 Team this weekend.)

While not the ideal way to face a number of these teams, Luongo felt it helped strengthen the resolve of his players.

“I was really happy with the progress of our younger players,” said Luongo. “Many of these guys, especially our young guys, had to break into the lineup and prove they wanted to be here.”

As to be somewhat expected, the Chargers’ progress was not seen in the win column, as the Chargers went 4-26-2 this season. This was evidenced in real time last Saturday during a 5-1 loss to Ferris State.

“We’ve had some lapses on the mental side of things,” said Luongo. “Saturday started well, but a failed power play early in the second period really took the life out of us.”

Despite the lack of wins, Luongo and his staff saw some good things happen along the way. The Chargers leaned on three freshman goaltenders, and all three did good things. Clarke Saunders set a school record on Jan. 29 with 58 saves in a win over Nebraska-Omaha.

“They all showed signs that they are going to be good goalies,” Chargers captain Ryan Burkholder said.

The Chargers also looked for leadership from their upperclassmen, and two of them stepped forward. Senior defenseman Matt Baxter, an assistant captain who had not scored more than four points in a season prior to this year, led the team with nine goals, six of which came on the power play, and 22 points.

“Matt really stepped up his game for us this season,” said Luongo. “We had been waiting for him to do that.”

Baxter had a career night on Nov. 27 against Connecticut, when he posted two goals and three points. For his teammates, he was impressive from the first time they stepped on the ice this season.

“Playing with Matt was a real treat for me,” said Burkholder. “He really did have a breakout year. You could see it in practice and he was able to carry that over into games.”

Junior forward Jamie Easton was another skater who took a giant leap forward, notching six goals and 18 points after scoring only nine points in his first two seasons combined.

“Easton kind of turned into a bit of a power play specialist for us,” said Burkholder. “That’s a good sign for next year as well.”

Adding to the challenge of the tough schedule was seeing Ferris State both during the first weekend of the season at home and again this past weekend on the road. Ferris State took the first game in October, but the Chargers rallied for a 4-2 win in the second game. Last weekend, the Bulldogs won both games.

“I think they probably weren’t ready for us the first time, but they knew what to expect the second time around,” said Luongo. “If they were going to change, they had the maximum amount of time to do it.”

Next season’s schedule will look fairly similar to this season’s, according to Luongo, given that no conference affiliation is in the works as of yet. However, Luongo’s staff sees that as a potential selling point for incoming freshmen.

“It’s certainly not ideal,” said Luongo. “We are getting to play a good range of opponents from every part of the country … rather than playing three teams 18 times. We will use that to our advantage in recruiting.”

The veteran players embraced the opportunity given to them in facing teams from across the country that they didn’t get the chance to see during their previous seasons.

“Obviously, it been different,” said Burkholder. “As an athlete, you always want that championship to prepare for. I think that we were a little hesitant at times because we didn’t know what to expect.”

As far as a potential return to conference play down the road, Luongo is optimistic that the right situation will present itself as long as the program continues to improve. For now, they are content to wait on the landscape changes that will come with the addition of a program at Penn State.

“We are waiting on Penn State and what they do,” said Luongo. “We want to be in the best position health-wise that we can be so that we can be ready.”

One thing is for sure right now: The Chargers don’t mind doing whatever it takes to play games against the nation’s top programs.

“It’s actually kind of a neat thing,” said Luongo. “I think more teams should really try doing something like this.”