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After a ‘foundation’ year, UAH eyes Atlantic for the future

The Chargers got the season in. This spring will determine if there will be more.

Ten months after the UAH hockey program was canceled and subsequently saved, the Chargers finished the 2020-21 season. They had only three wins, but the fact they played 22 games was a victory in itself.

“It was important for us to get through the season any way we could to play,” UAH head coach Lance West said. “We made so many road trips. We went to states with schools who wouldn’t travel here. Our university did everything it could to play the games, one, because we wanted to, and two, because of all the work that so many had put in and contributions so many people made to keep this program going. It’s about rebuilding the foundation of our program and I think our guys started to do that.”

UAH had a 2-5-1 start before being unable to play for about a month while having to deal with COVID-19, including a 10-day pause in activities. The Chargers, which had 14 freshmen on the roster, lost 13 of their last 14 games, but West said the pause was not the reason.

“Most of the teams we played finished in the top 20,” West said. “The level went up. We hung in there, but in most of those games we didn’t make the plays we needed to make.

“We were so young, but I was proud of the guys. They never quit in any game. Did we want more wins? Yes. Do we wish it finished differently? Yes. But they did a whole lot of great things and built the foundation and helped us at least move forward.”

The Chargers had some bright spots, such as goaltender David Fessenden becoming “Big Save Dave” to keep the team in games and Tyrone Bronte making the WCHA all-rookie team by leading UAH in scoring as a freshman. They also rewarded the UAH faithful with two thrilling wins over Ferris State in their first series back at the VBC.

UAH athletics director Cade Smith said he kept telling the athletics department, “Every time we got a chance to play, it was a win.”

“If you had told me back in October that our winter sports, including basketball, indoor track, and hockey, that they would make it all the way through the way that they did, I would have said, ‘I’ll take it.’,” Smith said. “I’m really proud of everything that we were able to get done as a department and each individual athletic team. Our training staff has been invaluable and unbelievable in what they have been able to do to get us through. We already knew that we had good people, and I think that was magnified through everything we had to go through.”

UAH had seven home games in Propst Arena at the Von Braun Center, limited to 30 percent capacity, and continued to work with the Huntsville Havoc on providing an engaging in-game experience.

“The Havoc were good, like last year, and took a huge burden off of us trying to get things done, because a lot of those people we would have had to hire independently,” Smith said.

Now the program turns to another uncertain offseason. With the WCHA era over, UAH is still working on securing a conference home so the program can secure that long-term stability. If UAH fails to join a conference, the hockey program will fold for good, as there are no plans to compete as an independent in the long term.

The new incarnation of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, which will comprise of seven other WCHA schools and St. Thomas starting this fall, has told UAH it will not be considered. The only feasible option for the Chargers is the Atlantic Hockey Association.

As part of its pitch to join the Atlantic Hockey, UAH is offering $25,000 per series for each team that travels down to Huntsville over 10 years.

Atlantic Hockey will discuss expansion at its June meetings. If the conference votes to expand, seven of the 11 members would have to agree on inviting an institution as a member. Should UAH be accepted, it could be up to two years before the Chargers can begin conference play.

Long Island University, which just finished its first season of men’s varsity hockey with a scheduling agreement with the Atlantic Hockey, is also looking to become a full-time member.

On the broadcast of the conference’s championship game on Saturday, Atlantic Hockey commissioner Robert DeGregorio Jr. said expansion “is on the agenda for the directors meeting in the spring. We also have a third school that we’re talking with. We’ll see what progress is going to be made. The directors have to look at a lot of things, not just the candidates.”

The third school DeGregorio referred to could be Navy, which has been rumored to upgrade hockey to varsity status soon and would join fellow service academies and rivals Army and Air Force.

DeGregorio said Atlantic Hockey would like to get back to 12 teams, but 14 teams is on the table for discussion. “They have a lot of things to talk about regards to expansion, nothing that’s been predetermined,” he said.

“I sent letters out to two of the schools, letting them know that it will be on the agenda for the directors in the spring. We’ve got to update our protocols for what we use for membership, which I’m in the process of doing for the executive committee as well as the rest of the directors. Hopefully, everything is going to be reviewed favorably and the discussions will determine the direction we go.”

Smith said he received the letter from DeGregorio last week. UAH hopes to have an answer on joining Atlantic Hockey as soon as possible, so that the program and the student-athletes can prepare for either result.

We could know by the end of spring whether the Chargers can truly build upon their new foundation.

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Chargers’ season ends with playoff loss at Lake State

The Chargers’ WCHA era came to a end in frustrating fashion on Saturday, as UAH lost 4-1 at Lake Superior State.

The Lakers swept the WCHA quarterfinal series in two games, ending UAH’s season at 3-18-1.

LSSU (17-6-3) killed the Chargers on the power play, converting 3-of-8 opportunities. UAH committed a season-high nine penalties, and could have gotten more as the officials kept whistles mostly quiet in the first period.

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David Fessenden came up big numerous times to keep the game scoreless through one period. He made 13 of his 31 saves in the frame, denying former Charger Jack Jeffers taking a centering pass in the slot, stopping Benito Posa from the same spot, and sliding from post to post to steal a backhander from Brandon Puricelli.

Fessenden needed to make those saves as the Lakers took the possession battle in the first, helped by winning 17 of 23 faceoffs.

Meanwhile, UAH got only five shots on Laker goalie Seth Eisele, who was making only his second start of the season instead of their No. 1, Mareks Mitens. Eisele finished with 16 saves in the game.

Dayne Finnson was given a highly questionable boarding penalty in the last minute of the first, and Lake Superior took advantage 18 seconds into the second. An unchecked Louis Boudon tipped in a centering pass from Jeffers.

Boudon later went flying on Connor Wood’s hip check, and had to crawl back to the Laker bench. Wood was likely fortunate to get only two minutes for the hit, but Lake Superior capitalized anyway as they were already on the power play.

Puricelli’s blast on Fessenden left a big rebound for Will Riedell, who scored on the ensuing open net to give LSSU a 2-0 lead at the 7:15 mark.

Three minutes later, the Lakers scored yet another power-play goal after a UAH too many men on the ice penalty. Hampus Eriksson’s deflection in the slot made it 3-0.

Puricelli scored with 6:40 to go for the Lakers’ fourth goal.

Mick Heneghan prevented the shutout with a power-play goal with 2:12 remaining in the game. His blast up the middle, his first college goal, was assisted by Brian Scoville and Connor Merkley.

UAH now enters an uncertain offseason as it looks for a new conference to call home. UAH is courting Atlantic Hockey and the CCHA, which will have seven members of the disbanding WCHA.

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Lakers roll over UAH in game 1

Lake Superior State pulled away in the second period to defeat UAH 6-1 on Friday night in Game 1 of the WCHA quarterfinals series in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

UAH (3-17-1) faces elimination heading into Saturday’s Game 2, which starts at 4:07 p.m. Central Time.

The Lakers (16-6-3) struck first at the 3:14 on a goal by Pete Veillette, who is too dangerous to be left alone. Veillette was unmarked as he took a pass from behind the net in front and quickly beat David Fessenden for his 12th goal of the season.

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Lake Superior took a 2-0 lead eight minutes later on a power-play goal. Fessenden never saw the puck as it slipped between him and the post after flying through a screen off the stick of Brandon Puricelli in the right circle.

After a penalties on the Lakers at the end of the first period and 24 seconds into the second, UAH had a prime opportunity to come back. But despite having over a minute and a half of two-man advantage and scoring a goal, the Chargers found themselves no closer.

Lucas Bahn, dragging the puck to make a Laker defenseman commit, snapped the puck past Mitens for his second goal of the season to cut LSSU’s lead to 2-1.

The Lakers regained their two-goal lead with a short-handed goal just six seconds later. Veillette stole the puck in the UAH zone and quickly scored his second goal of the game.

LSSU then scored three goals in a span of 4:50 to pull away, starting with a Lukas Kaelble’s blast from the blue line to make it 4-1.

Fessenden’s night of tough breaks ended with 3:40 left in the second, when Alexandro Ambrosio’s shot, deflected by Jacob Nordqvist, hit his pad, went up in the air, and somehow fell in the net for a 5-1 Laker lead.

Derek Krall came in, and soon allowed a Miroslav Mucha goal that made it 6-1 at the second intermission. There was no scoring in the third period.

The Lakers outshot the Chargers 27-14.

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UAH returns to Lake State for WCHA quarterfinals

UAH (3-16-1) vs. Lake Superior State (15-6-3)
WCHA Quarterfinals (best-of-3)
WHERE: Taffy Abel Arena, Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.
WHEN: Game 1, Friday, 6:07 p.m.; Game 2, Saturday, 4:07 p.m.; Game 3 (if necessary), Sunday, 4:07 p.m.
WATCH: FloHockey.tv (subscription)
TEAM STATS: UAH | Lake Superior State

The Chargers have seen a lot of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan this season.

In early December, they played Lake Superior State there in a non-conference series. Last month, UAH went back for a WCHA series with the Lakers.

This weekend, the Chargers head to the Soo for a third time this season, this time for the postseason. UAH and Lake State face off in the best-of-3 WCHA quarterfinals starting Friday night.

If the series goes three, the Chargers will have played as many games at Taffy Abel Arena as they have at Von Braun Center this season (seven).

UAH comes in as the seventh seed with a seven-game losing streak. The Lakers shot up the standings to snag the second seed by winning nine of their last 12 games and getting at least one point in 11 of their last 12.

The Chargers have played the Lakers tough, though, despite an 0-3-1 head-to-head record, all at Lake State.

The first matchup on December 5 saw UAH rally with goals from Adrian Danchenko and Tyrone Bronte to force a 2-2 draw. The Charger fell behind 2-0 again the next day, but scores from Brian Scoville and Frank Vitucci were not enough in a 3-2 loss.

To open the conference series in February, Bennett Stockdale put UAH up 1-0 in the second period, but the Lakers scored twice in the third, including the game-winner with nine seconds left, steal a victory. Quinn Green gave the Chargers the early lead in the second game, but Lake Superior scored four unanswered goals for the sweep.

In all four games, neither team had a solid shots on goal advantage except for the third game, in which LSSU outshot UAH 28-10 but needed that last-minute goal to win.

So an upset is not out of the question, but the Chargers, who have been shut out in three of their last four games, will have to get out of their scoring slump against one of the best goaltenders in the country. Mareks Mitens ranks eighth in Division I in goals against average (1.86) and sixth in save percentage (.934). UAH scored three goals against Mitens in his two complete games between the pipes.

Bronte continues to lead the Chargers in scoring as a freshman with 13 points, and he was named to the WCHA all-rookie team on Wednesday. He leads the conference among freshmen in points per game (0.65).

UAH will need yet another strong goaltending performance of its own. David Fessenden still has solid numbers with a .920 save percentage and 2.62 goals against in 14 starts. He stopped 31 of 33 shots in his last outing at Bemidji State on Saturday.

Lake Superior State’s offense is about average among WCHA teams, scoring 2.7 goals per game, but the Lakers have some dangerous strikers. Juniors Ashton Calder and Pete Veillete lead the team with 12 and 11 goals, respectively. Calder has a goal and Veillete has three assists against UAH this season.

The winners of the four quarterfinal series will meet next weekend at the rink of the highest remining seed for single-elimination semifinals and the WCHA championship game.

WCHA quarterfinal series. All times Central.

#7 UAH at #2 Lake Superior State
Game 1: Friday, 6:07 p.m.
Game 2: Saturday, 4:07 p.m.
Game 3 (if necessary): Sunday, 4:07 p.m.

#8 Ferris State at #1 Minnesota State
Game 1: Friday, 6:07 p.m.
Game 2: Saturday, 4:07 p.m.
Game 3 (if necessary): Sunday, 4:07 p.m.

#6 Northern Michigan at #3 Bowling Green
Game 1: Friday, 6:07 p.m.
Game 2: Saturday, 6:07 p.m.
Game 3 (if necessary): Sunday, 4:07 p.m.

#5 Michigan Tech at #4 Bemidji State
Game 1: Friday, 7:07 p.m.
Game 2: Saturday, 6:07 p.m.
Game 3 (if necessary): Sunday, 5:07 p.m.

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Graduating with Connors: Seniors reflect on time at UAH

As the only two seniors on the 2020-21 Chargers, Connor Merkley and Connor Wood have experienced quite a lot at UAH. They have seen thrilling victories, grueling road trips, and the cancellation and resurrection of the program, and that’s just for starters.

The two will be honored at Senior Day, the Chargers’ final home game of the season, on Sunday against Bowling Green at the Von Braun Center. Opening puck drop is 3:07 p.m.

Photo by Todd Thompson/RiverCat Photography

Connor Merkley

A native of Portland, Ontario, Canada, Connor Merkley is one of many to come to UAH from the Carleton Place Canadians in the CCHL.

“Making the jump to NCAA hockey is no short leap by any means for anyone,” Merkley said. “In NCAA hockey, everyone is here for a reason. At the beginning it was definitely a learning experience for me, but I think the biggest thing for me was just having confidence in myself and my own abilities. Once you make that adjustment, you just need to be sure of yourself and find your role as you continue to move forward.”

Merkley got plenty of chances to adjust from the start, playing in 35 games in his freshman year. His first collegiate goal came on November 11, 2017, in thrilling fashion against Alaska Anchorage, tying the game with less than a second remaining in regulation.

“That’s one moment that will stick with me, I’m sure,” Merkley said. “That was my first career collegiate goal, and my family had made the road trip down. I had my parents, both of my sisters, and my brother-in-law there, so that was exciting to have them in the stands and share that moment with them.”

That was just the start of his memories at UAH.

“I enjoyed playing in the playoffs the two times that we played,” Merkley said. “My freshman year against Northern Michigan was exciting, where we went to game three and had a good chance in that series. Playing against Mankato (the following season), as much as it wasn’t the result we wanted, it was just the challenge of playing against such a well-run team, and as a hockey player you want to play against the best players.”

In 110 career games at UAH, Merkley has nine goals and 13 assists for 22 points. This season, Merkley has only played in nine games, scoring one goal. He’s missed the last eight with a knee injury, but he’s hopeful that he will play on Sunday.

Speaking of adjustments, Merkley says the Chargers have been able to weather through the pandemic, which has led to several schedule disruptions, as best they can.

“You have to stay in the moment within what you are doing in your daily activities,” Merkley said. “You can’t really let outside noise or anything going around affect what you’re doing and take it day by day. It’s been a roller-coaster for sure trying to just stay the path, but it’s one of those situations where everyone is fighting through the same thing.”

Merkley is a kinesiology major graduating this year. He was named to the WCHA all-academic team last season. Merkley said the pandemic has made his near-future plans unclear: “I’m not sure whether I’m going to continue playing hockey or pursuing school, but it’s hard to get a grip on what anything is going to bring in the future.”

Merkley is optimistic for the future of the UAH hockey program, and grateful for the opportunity the program has given him.

“Last summer, we experienced some things you don’t wish to go through as a player and a program, but the school and the alumni and the new coaching staff have a great vision for what is to come in the future,” Merkley said. “The direction of the team is going to be great with the all the support. The biggest thing right now is to get into a conference. Whatever conference that we end up joining, UAH has some big things ahead of them.

“There’s been lots of people over the course of my career that have helped me. I’m grateful for the opportunity that UAH has given me to be able to follow my dreams and be able to play Division I hockey. I’m grateful to all the support staff, from the coaches that I’ve had to the equipment manager Damon Wheeler, to the athletic trainers. It’s hard to step away from your family and go away on 18-plus-hour road trips and support the team. I’m also grateful to my professors and everyone within the UAH kinesiology department who have made me have a good experience with going to school full time as well as playing hockey.”

Photo by Todd Thompson/RiverCat Photography

Connor Wood

Two things make Connor Wood stand out on the ice: His flowing golden hair and getting under the skin of his opponents.

The Buford, Georgia native has also been looked at as one of the leaders to this season’s roster and its 14 freshmen.

“It was really weird at first with so many new faces, but as time went on it’s really interesting how fast we got close,” Wood said. “Some of my best friends on the team this year are freshmen. I really like that about our team, that we have that kind of dynamic where it doesn’t matter what year you are, we’re all friends. It’s really cool for me to see them learn things that I also learned as a freshman. You see them understand as the year goes on what we talk about and them grow as players.”

“As you grow up playing games, you get more confident,” Wood said, comparing his game today to his own freshmen experiences. “You feel more confident with the puck at this level. In my freshman year, I’d probably be more panicky with the puck on the wall, whereas you get older you settle in and know what to expect.”

That confidence has carried through a tough year with the salvaging of the program and the pandemic.

“Going back to last summer, that was definitely an emotional week,” Wood said. “For me, being a senior, I didn’t want to have to go anywhere else. I was very excited to finish out my college career here.

“Getting two weekends cancelled and then having to make those up, which resulted in four games in five days on the road, aren’t usually things you have to worry about. It’s difficult, but we battled through it.”

Wood has played 96 games as a Charger, scoring six goals and 13 points. Some of his favorite moments as a Charger have come recently, namely the sweep of Ferris State at the VBC in January and snatching a win over then 15th-ranked Bowling Green on the road two years ago. Sometimes the best memories are also your first.

“My very first college game was pretty exciting at Notre Dame,” Wood said. “Really good team, cool rink. Just a very cool experience to get to play in your very first one.”

Wood is a two-time member of the WCHA all-academic team, majoring in business marketing. Last season, he was named a WCHA Scholar-Athlete. He too isn’t sure what the future holds for him. He might exercise the fifth year of eligibility the NCAA is allowing all winter-sport athletes because of the pandemic, go for a master’s degree, or continue playing in Europe or wherever the opportunity presents itself.

Whatever he wants to do, he knows he has the support from the network of Charger hockey alumni.

“That’s one of the more special things about UAH: It’s very close-knit,” Wood said. “I had an alum after we swept Ferris — I hadn’t talked to him I don’t think — he found my number and he texted me and reached out. Guys who graduated 20 to 30 years ago still just care so much and will help anyone who has come through the program. I think that’s really special, because I don’t think a lot of programs really have that.”

Wood is also confident UAH will get into a conference after this season because of that alumni push.

“Our alumni are doing an outstanding job of doing whatever they can to make sure we stay around and have a competitive team,” Wood said. “I have a lot of trust and faith in those guys and I think they’re going to come through big time for us and get us a place to play and keep UAH hockey alive.”

For now, Wood is grateful for his time in Huntsville.

“I just want everyone to know how thankful I am, to the school itself for giving me an opportunity, all the friends I’ve made, the memories I have made. They gave me an opportunity to play college hockey and a lot of chances to grow as a player, especially the coaches this year seeing me as a leader. I’m really thankful for everything I’ve gotten at UAH and getting an education along the way.”