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2019-20 preview: Younger, speedier Chargers eye growth spurt

Last season, there were plenty of freshman who got a taste of the college game. Now, even more rookies are here looking to turn things around in 2019-20.

The UAH hockey program took a step back in 2018-19 in terms of record (8-28-2) and is still looking for that jump up the WCHA standings. The Chargers finished eighth in the league last season and lost in the WCHA quarterfinals at Minnesota State.

UAH has 10 freshmen this season, more than the number of juniors and seniors combined (nine). Half of them earned 3.5-star ratings from recruiting site Neutral Zone, underlying the potential of this class.

“We’ve got a young group,” Corbett said. “Just the short time we’ve been able to get on the ice, they’ve made a very good impression on me and to the rest of our staff and the rest of our team.

“I like their speed, and we’ve also added a little bit of size. We’ve got some guys in the 6-0 to 6-2 range that can get up and down the rink. That’s going to be beneficial to us. There’s guys who have played a lot of junior hockey who can not only contribute in college hockey but also be leaders for our team.”

The Chargers hope to surprise some folks after being picked to finish ninth in the WCHA preseason coaches and media polls.

Here’s a look at the 2019-20 UAH Chargers.

Jack Jeffers (Photo by Todd Thompson/RiverCat Photography)

Forwards

Scoring was a bit of a struggle for the Chargers last season, particularly in the early going. UAH mustered only nine goals in the first 10 games on the way to a 1.76 average.

UAH eventually found a catalyst in Hans Gorowsky, who scored 12 goals, but he’s now graduated. The top returning point scorers each had 14 points last season: Austin Beulieu, Christian Rajic, Jack Jeffers, and Bauer Neudecker.

“Those are the four guys that we’re depending upon, along with our freshman group, to jumpstart our offense,” Corbett said.

Beaulieu, a senior, had five goals and nine assists last season. He sees plenty of potential in this year’s Charger offense, especially if they finish the chances they had trouble with last season.

“Everyone’s had a good summer of training and working on their skills,” Beaulieu said. “The freshmen have adjusted well so far in practice, and I think as the games come, they’ll just get better with experience.

“For me, it’s more being around the net and trying to finish my chances as well.”

Austin Beaulieu and Bauer Neudecker (Todd Thompson/RiverCat Photography)

Jeffers and Neudecker, now sophomores, each had seven goals in their freshman campaigns.

“Jack’s probably as talented as anybody in the league,” Corbett said. “Now those guys all have a year or two under their belts and now we’re going to ask them to really step up and be threats. The biggest thing is in order to score you’ve got to be a threat first.”

Rajic, now a junior, was tied for the team lead with 11 assists last year.

Brandon Salerno is the only other senior forward, also chipping in five goals in 2018-19.

More returning juniors are Connor Merkley (three goals) and Connor Wood (two goals). Tyr Thompson and Ben Allen round out the returning sophomores.

UAH has five freshman forwards. Josh Latta scored 19 goals with Vernon of the BCHL, helping the Vipers reach the league finals.

The largest of the new class is Florida native Adrian Danchenko at 6-2, 185 pounds. He scored 15 goals for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the NAHL last season.

Liam Izyk (6-1, 180, 12 goals with Fort McMurray in the AJHL, Peyton Francis (6-1, 175, 24 goals for Carleton Place of the CCHL) and Daneel Lategan (6-1, 180, 20 goals for Langley of the BCHL) all bring added size to the front.

“We feel like we can pressure teams a little bit more now, and we’re excited about that,” Corbett said.

“They’re all really good contributors on their teams, and we just expect them to come in and be good freshmen and contribute. We need those guys to chip in five goals, seven assists, things like that to just up our scoring. They’be been around and they know how to contribute to a team’s success.”

Liam Izyk (Photo by Todd Thompson/RiverCat Photography)

Defensemen

UAH will look to improve upon a scoring defense that was ranked ninth in the WCHA last season. The Chargers are hoping that added quickness will result in less laying back and more steals, facilitating a more aggressive offense.

“Just getting pucks quick, breaking out and being aggressive on the forecheck,” sophomore defenseman Drew Lennon said. “We’re really going to try and play faster this year.”

Senior Connor James is the only returning defenseman who saw regular action last year. He scored four goals and blocked 37 shots.

“Connor is a slick little defenseman,” Corbett said. “We’re going to count on him to add some offense, and I think he can really pick up his game.”

Two defensemen played all 38 games as freshman last season: Lennon and Bailey Newton.

“Lennon gained a ton of experience in all situations for us,” Corbett said. “Bailey Newton is a tough guy, more of a rugged-type defenseman. He’s a hard kid to play against.”

Lennon blocked 54 shots last season to lead all returning Chargers.

“With juniors, you play around 60 games a season, but that doesn’t really compare to what it’s like at the college level,” Lennon said. “It’s just so much faster. There’s less time and space. You have to be ready, physically and mentally, every night.”

Newton was easily the most penalized Charger last season with 93 minutes in the box. His lone goal of the year lifted UAH to a 1-0 win at Michigan Tech.

Dayne Finnson logged 32 games as a freshman last year, meaning the returning sophomore group already has seen plenty of action at the college level.

“We’re a pretty experienced group on the back end,” Lennon said.

Other returning defensemen are senior Sean Rappleyea and junior Teddy Rotenberger.

Three freshman blueliners join the Chargers: Lucas Bahn of Hendersonville, Tenn., who had 17 assists with West Kelowna of the BCHL; Tanner Hickey, who scored 11 goals for Spruce Grove of the AJHL; and Max Coyle, who had 15 assists for Prince George of the BCHL.

“We have a good freshman group that’ll be ready to play and make a contribution, like the group last year did,” Lennon said.

Sophomore Jay Powell of Nashville becomes the first player from UAH’s new club hockey team to join the varsity squad.

Mark Sinclair (Photo by Todd Thompson/RiverCat Photography)

Goaltending

Mark Sinclair is coming off a breakout sophomore season. He played in 28 games, starting 26, posting a 2.89 goals against average and a .915 save percentage (fifth-best in the WCHA). He had two shutouts, the first Charger multi-shutout year since Scott Munroe had three in the 2004-05 season.

“My freshman year, I didn’t play too much,” Sinclair said. “I just watched Jordan Uhelski, and that helped out a lot, too. Having the opportunity to watch the game and see how quick it is. After that, I just tried to have a good summer and came back ready to play, getting more of a workload and be prepared for that.

“I had a little bit of an injury at the end of last year, so I did a lot of recovery stuff this summer. So far in training camp, it’s been working with our goalie coach and getting back on the ice, trying to keep it basic and continue working on the same things I was working on last year and the previous summer.”

“Mark’s going to be big,” Corbett said. “Mark got a lot of solid minutes for us. With potentially three freshman, three sophomores and a senior on our back line, he’s going to be very important. It’s great when you have a guy back there you can trust.”

Two freshman goaltenders are joining Sinclair.

David Fessenden is big at 6-6 and 230 pounds. The Parker, Colo., native had a 2.74 goals against average and a .915 save percentage with the Northeast Generals of the NAHL.

George McBey just announced his commitment on September 3. McBey, who was committed to Division III Augsburg, had a 3.79 GAA and .908 save percentage in the NAHL last season, mostly with the Brookings Blizzard.

The season

The Chargers open the season on Saturday with a two-game set with UMass Lowell. Next week, UAH heads to Omaha to face the NCHC Mavericks.

“I like our matchups,” Corbett said. “I like our energy coming out of the gate and I think we’re going to be a heck of a lot more prepared. We’re going to be more prepared than in years past.

“We’re getting double the ice time and we’re utilizing that to the best of our ability. The good part is our guys came in in pretty darn good shape, so we’re excited about that.”

UAH hosts WCHA favorite Minnesota State on Oct. 25-26 to open the home and conference schedule. The last non-conference series is at North Dakota on Jan. 3-4.

The question is how well this young team can handle the new style they want to play during UAH’s typically-rigorous WCHA schedule.

“Are they going to handle that physically? We’ll see,” Corbett said. “We’ll see after we start grinding through some of the season, but right now we’re going to be able to skate with anyone.”

Beaulieu, Lennon, and Sinclair feel positive about the makeup of the team.

“For team, we obviously can continue to get better, improve our record, and make the playoffs again,” Beaulieu said. “Once you get into the playoffs, you never know what can happen.”

“With the whole realignment thing, we’ll just try and prove everyone wrong,” Lennon said. “That’s a big motivation for us.”

“We feel pretty good,” Sinclair said. “The guys look great. Everyone’s snapping the puck around and moving their feet. I think we have pretty high expectations and we’re hoping to have a breakout year as a team.”

Photos by Todd Thompson/RiverCat Photography

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UAH taking steps toward program’s next chapter

It’s been almost three months since seven WCHA schools announced plans to leave the conference and form their own league in the 2021-22 season.

The announcement caught UAH by surprise. The future of the WCHA was suddenly in doubt, which makes the future of Charger hockey uncertain.

UAH officials are confident they will find a new conference for hockey to play in, whether it’s with the WCHA, the Group of Seven, or elsewhere.

There haven’t been any formal talks with the Group of Seven to possibly be the new league’s eighth team, but if the WCHA dissolves, that’s where UAH would currently like to go. UAH head coach Mike Corbett says there are several factors that can change things further.

“For lack of a better term, the seven schools are looking to become free agents,” Corbett said. “There’s so many shoes that can drop. Whether it be overall realignment, the Alaska schools and their viability, and you have some other schools that many not be necessarily happy in the current league that they’re in. And you’ve got (independent) Arizona State, who can be a very viable player in the college hockey world.”

“The focus of most of our conversations right now are about having everything in place to have a good season,” said Cade Smith, who became UAH’s interim athletic director in June. “Now that we know at least where Alaska is for this season, it’s business as usual right now.”

In the meantime, UAH is preparing for future change by looking inward, reviewing the hockey program and its support structure.

“Anytime you have that opportunity to reassess what you’re doing, it can be a positive thing,” Smith said. “These are the things we think we’re doing well, but there are great opportunities for us to improve. At the end of the day, it’s how can we best impact the student-athlete experience of the 30 or so hockey players and every athlete we have on campus.”

The Group of Seven stated in their announcement that they want members who display “a level of institutional investment that demonstrates significant commitment to their hockey programs and facilities.”

Does this imply that, beyond geographical challenges, UAH does not invest enough in its hockey program?

UAH president Dr. Darren Dawson says the university’s financial support of the hockey program is above the WCHA average.

“For instance, we provide $560,000 for the hockey program’s base operating budget,” Dawson said. “That’s fourth out of the 10 teams in the WCHA. The average school in the league spends $433,359, so we’re well above average. Regarding athletic aid awarded to our players, we also rank fourth with a budget figure of $586,678. The average spent in this category for WCHA teams is $527,571.”

“The support has been great,” according to Smith. “We had a good meeting with some donors, and the outlook is really positive and committed. I don’t think people are worried. I think they’re just want to know what the next step is going to be so they can be all in.”

“Our alumni support is fantastic,” Corbett said. “Our alumni is giving more money to the athletic department than all the other teams combined.”

While that is good news, the rest of the college hockey world can only perceive what they see on game nights.

“I think one thing other schools want to see is a different commitment level to hockey,” Smith said. “And I think that’s fair.

“Whether their perception is reality or not, they want to see commitment in a different way. So we’re working now to define what that is, and then to make it evident that we’re committed to hockey.”

One sign many of taken for university commitment is a plan for a multi-use facility on campus that would be the new home for hockey, basketball, and volleyball. UAH president Dr. Bob Altenkirch, whom Dawson took over for last month, unveiled the plan back in April, and the University of Alabama System board of trustees approved the development’s addition to the campus master plan in June.

However, a new arena is still a long way from reality.

“It is our hope that we can move quickly on various aspects of the development, including the multi-purpose facility,” Dawson said. “However, the truth is that it will take private support for these developments, which takes time, and the planning and construction of such a facility is a lengthy process as well.”

“While the arena does show commitment to hockey, we can still show commitment to hockey right now,” Smith said.

The Chargers’ opening series at Propst Arena is October 26 and 27, starting WCHA play against league favorite Minnesota State. UAH has 14 home dates this season.

UAH athletics administration has been taking steps to increase attendance, which has slowly declined since its first season in the WCHA, and giving fans a better experience at the Von Braun Center.

UAH’s recent record at home has been poor (11-29-4 over the last three seasons), but there was no boost when the Chargers were playing better. There’s more to increasing attendance than just on-ice performance.

“We’re having meetings about how to make the fan experience better and more engaged,” Smith said. “Number one is trying to get a more intimate hockey venue, even though we’re in a large room. We’ve been working to change how general admission tickets work, and it’s not just all going to be in the upper bowl. We’re going to try to fill the lower bowl every night. That’s going to hopefully increase engagement to get people where they bleed from the bottom up instead of the opposite.

“The Pep Band is going to 100-plus, so they will have to move up to the upper bowl. I think there’s already some things that are going to be better just naturally.”

Smith said they are looking at having an emcee, somebody in charge of music, and somebody in charge of promotions and fan contests, to make they game more fun even for those who do not know much about hockey. The staff has also had meetings with the Huntsville Havoc, which has done well filling the arena, about fan engagement.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Smith said. “We’ve got somebody here in town who’s got a pretty good idea of how to do it. We can figure out what things work in the SPHL that are allowed with the NCAA.

“It’s not always about how much money do you put into it. Sometimes it’s about how many humans you have available to do things.”

The video streaming of home games is also getting a focus. “One thing we’ve talked about is hopefully having a partnership with the Havoc on some of their equipment, increasing our visibility.” Such improvements would include replays that would also be shown in the arena and different audience camera angles.

“We’re making some progress with just the quality of our cameras and the quality of the image that they’re able to stream.”

“We’re just trying to make things current, for lack of a better term,” Corbett said. “We’ve been trying to put the program on a level that we feel the WCHA is.”

When all is said and done, UAH is confident that the program will show that it will bring something to a conference and keep its place in Division I college hockey.

“I think we have a lot to offer,” Smith said. “Just the financial standing as an institution, I would think we are in probably as good a shape as anyone, if not better than most.”

“I think the place to start these conversations would be internally,” Dawson said. “We need input from our coaches and players. We also need to get the views of our hockey boosters on what they see as a direction for our program and the support they are willing to provide. We need to determine what is going to be in the best interest of the UAH hockey program for our long-range future, so that means we should be very deliberate about our plans and not get lured into a decision made in haste that would lead us to another dead end.”

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Season tickets, BLC memberships for 2019-20 on sale

Season tickets and Blue Line Club memberships are now on sale for the 2019-20 season.

Lower bowl reserved and ice-level suite season tickets are worth $208 for 14 home games.

A Flex Pack of 10 reserved tickets that can be redeemed at the Von Braun Center box office for any games you wish cost $120.

The Blue Line Club, UAH hockey’s booster program, has new levels this season. At least two season tickets with access to the VBC hospitality room are included with each Blue Line Club membership, which starts at $500. Higher levels include free access to coaches’ lunches, parking passes, and UAH President’s Council membership.

Kids 12 and under can become members of the Corbs Kid’s Club. For $30, kids receive a season pass, a T-shirt, a hockey team photo, and a schedule poster.

Supporters can order season tickets or BLC memberships in two ways:

Refer to the brochure for more information or contact Jason Rucker at Jason.Rucker@uah.edu or 256-824-6584.

The Chargers’ home opening series is on October 25 and 26 against Minnesota State. UAH opens the 2019-20 campaign on October 5 at UMass Lowell.

Recent home schedule changes: The series against Bemidji State has been moved from Jan. 10-11 to Jan. 9-10, with both games starting at 7:37 instead of 7:07. The Feb. 29 home finale against Bowling Green is now at 3:07 matinee start.

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7 schools announce plan to exit WCHA

Well, here we go again.

On a Friday afternoon news dump, seven WCHA schools — Bemidji State, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State, and Northern Michigan — announced their intentions to create a new men’s hockey conference, leaving UAH, Alaska, and Alaska Anchorage behind.

The new league would begin play in the 2021-22 season, meaning the current WCHA would still play together in 2019-20 and 2020-21.

As of Friday evening, there has been no comment from UAH reacting to the announcement. WCHA commissioner Bill Robertson said the league “will work to assure that any members that do withdraw do so in accordance with WCHA Bylaws.”

Even after the dust settled on the NCAA Division I realignment in 2013, when UAH joined the WCHA, rumblings persisted that conference shifting would happen again.

The primary reason for the change is in the second paragraph of the joint press release from the seven schools on Friday:

“They are like-minded in their goals and aspirations for the potential new league with a focus on improving regional alignment and the overall student-athlete experience while building natural rivalries within a more compact geographic footprint.”

In other words, they don’t want to fly to Alaska or Alabama all the time.

According to a source close to the UAH hockey program, former athletics director E.J. Brophy did not adequately support UAH as a member of the WCHA.

The source said trips to Huntsville are cheaper than to Minnesota or to and from Michigan for many of the seven teams that are leaving. Brophy’s administration also did not listen to staff warnings about the WCHA potentially breaking up and did nothing to prepare or manage UAH’s image as a league partner.

Brophy was reassigned earlier this month. Dr. Cade Smith has been named the interim athletics director, likely until Brophy’s contract expires next year.

The source indicated that UAH hockey should be OK in the short term, particularly if the program gets a WCHA payout once the seven schools leave. It will also help if the new permanent athletics director has hockey experience, which should be a priority.

The new A.D. will have to take the lead in finding a new conference home for UAH hockey. That hiring will fall on new president Dr. Darren Dawson, who took over from the retiring Dr. Robert Altenkirch this month.

The hockey program is in a more stable position than it was in its last conference search in 2012, after Altenkirch saved the program from cancellation after a grass-roots campaign. The WCHA unanimously accepted UAH on January 17, 2013 and started league play that fall.

UAH indicated a commitment to hockey in April by announcing plans to build a on-campus, multi-use facility that would be the new home for hockey, basketball, and volleyball.

The facility and the overall Executive Plaza mixed-use development, presented by Altenkirch to the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees in April, was added to the UAH master plan in June following committee approval.

That could help put UAH in position to promote itself to a league that could take them in, although the options are unclear at this early stage.

UAH could try to convince the seven schools who are planning to leave the WCHA that the Chargers would give their new league a nice even eight members. UAH could try to join another existing conference, but or a league that hasn’t been conceived yet. Anything would be pure speculation without a study of feasibility at this point.

At any rate, the future of Charger hockey is uncertain, but if UAH plays its cards right and gets the right people, the program can move forward and grow.

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Chargers release 2019-20 schedule

UAH will face challenges inside the WCHA and out this coming season.

The 2019-20 schedule was released on Wednesday. It will be the 35th varsity season for UAH and 41st overall, the 21st season of the modern Division I era and the seventh in the WCHA.

The schedule features 34 games with 14 at home and 20 on the road.

The Chargers open the season with two road non-conference series, Oct. 4-5 at UMass Lowell and Oct. 11-12 at Omaha.

UMass Lowell (19-13-5) finished fourth in Hockey East last season. The Chargers last faced the River Hawks around Thanksgiving 2011 in Lowell, losing 3-0.

Omaha (9-24-3) struggled to a seventh-place tie in the NCHC last season. UAH and UNO had a tough series in Omaha in 2014, with the Mavs winning 2-1 in game one and scoring late to force a 3-3 tie in game two. Omaha also comes to Huntsville in 2020-21 for the first time since 1998.

“Again we have a strong non-conference and all on the road,” UAH head coach Mike Corbett said. “The good thing is UML and UNO are the front end of home and home series. We have to do our part to help the WCHA and get some non-conference wins.”

Both UMass Lowell and Omaha return visits to Huntsville in the 2020-21 season.

The other non-conference series occurs Jan. 3-4 at North Dakota (18-17-2). The Chargers last visited Grand Forks at New Year’s of the 2015-16 season, when the Fighting Hawks won their eighth national championship.

WCHA action begins the weekend of Oct. 25-26 with UAH hosting league champion Minnesota State. The tough conference start continues the next weekend with a trip to Northern Michigan, which finished second last season.

“We have a very difficult WCHA schedule as we play four of the top five teams from last season four times,” Corbett said. “We are going to have to be prepared to play the top teams in the league, and compete hard. We will have our work cut out for us.”

Minnesota State hosts the Chargers on Feb. 21-22. UAH will play NMU all four times in November, facing off in Huntsville on Nov. 29-30.

The Chargers play third-place Bowling Green, their travel partner, and fifth-place Bemidji State, their longtime rival, four times. Bemidji comes to the VBC on Jan. 10-11, and BG finishes the regular season in Huntsville on Feb. 28-29.

The Chargers play three home series in the first half of the season, and four in the second half. UAH plays the last five weeks of the regular season, with three series at home for the stretch run.

2019-20 UAH Hockey Schedule
Home games in bold. * WCHA game.

All home games start at 7:07 p.m.

Oct. 4-5 at UMass Lowell
Oct. 11-12 at Omaha
Oct. 25-26 vs. Minnesota State*
Nov. 1-2 at Northern Michigan*
Nov. 8-9 vs. Alaska Anchorage*
Nov. 22-23 at Bemidji State*
Nov. 29-30 vs. Northern Michigan*
Dec. 6-7 at Bowling Green*
Dec. 13-14 at Ferris State*
Jan. 3-4 at North Dakota
Jan. 10-11 vs. Bemidji State*
Jan. 17-18 at Alaska Anchorage*
Jan. 31-Feb. 1 vs. Michigan Tech*
Feb. 7-8 vs. Alaska*
Feb. 14-15 at Lake Superior State*
Feb. 21-22 at Minnesota State*
Feb. 28-29 vs. Bowling Green*