Flames return with fresh fire, renewed focus in pursuit of first ACHA DI national title

From Liberty Club Sports

By Ted Allen


After reaching the Final Four for the second time in three seasons and third time ever at the Division I level, Liberty is targeting the final in St. Louis.

With an experienced squad that includes several players from the lineup that advanced to the National Championship semifinals twice in the past three seasons, Liberty University’s ACHA Division I men’s hockey team has high hopes and great expectations as it prepares for Friday night’s opener against North Carolina State at 7 p.m. in the LaHaye Ice Center.

“To go through the national tournament the way we have the past few years that these guys have been here, is a great opportunity for them to go into this year knowing what it takes to get to the end of the year and be national champions,” said Flames 24th-year Head Coach Kirk Handy, who has guided Liberty to the national tournament in each of the past seven seasons. “For us, that experience is big and we’re looking to rely on those guys to continue to push us throughout the year.”

While Friday’s opener will be more of an exhibition against an ACHA Division II opponent, the Flames will jump into the deep end of the ACHA DI pool from the outset, with a Sept. 22 “Midnight Mayhem” opening showdown with reigning ACHA DI national champion Minot State, which erased an early 2-0 deficit to eliminate them from the Final Four in overtime last March 21 in Boston.

After a 7 p.m. rematch with the Beavers on Sept. 23, the Flames will travel to Minot State for a two-game series on Sept. 29-30.

“Our second, third, fourth, and fifth games are all against Minot, the defending national champions, so that’s a good way to get started,” Liberty Associate Head Coach Jeff Boettger said. “That was such a good game (in the national semifinals) and they’re a top-quality team, so it’s always fun to play, a greatly skilled and well-oiled machine.”

First-semester showdowns also include series against Delaware, Adrian, Ohio, Maryville, Stony Brook, and Pittsburgh, in a Dec. 1-2 rematch of the Flames’ first win at nationals on March 19.

“The schedule is fantastic and we’re very blessed that God has given us the opportunity to play those top teams across the country,” Handy said. “What it’s going to do right from the start of the year through until the end of the year is to give us an opportunity to be in a battle every night. That’s the way that we want it. We want to be battle-tested as we go into the national tournament. We’re excited to get going. We’ve got a couple weeks of practice (under our belts) here and we’re looking forward to being game-ready come (Friday night).”

The Flames feature a strong cast of 20 returnees complemented by six incoming freshmen, including four defensemen, shoring up the unit that took the biggest hit from graduation last spring.

“It’s super exciting to have such an experienced group, guys that are in their third and fourth years now,” senior forward and head captain Matt Bartel said. “We’re going to have kind of an advantage going into some of those bigger games. Guys aren’t going to be as nervous or gripping the stick as tight.” “We have a solid group, great guys who are ready to lead the new guys coming in,” senior forward and alternate captain Brett Gammer added. “That experience we’ve had at nationals is really going to benefit us in the long run this year.”

“Adding four defensemen is quite a lot, but all of those guys can play and I feel like it’s going to be a really solid defensive corps,” Boettger said.

Junior forward and alternate captain Nate Albers said the upperclassmen have welcomed the freshmen — defensemen Kevin Bite, Marty Marnauzs, Owen Lugowski, and Nick Pomerleau and forwards Ryan Finch and Mason Smith — with open arms in the preseason.

“As the captains, we’ve put an emphasis on trying to build the culture and to make our team super close, like a brotherhood,” he said. “We want to make sure that our guys mesh well and when we can do that off the ice, it’s going to translate onto the ice.”

With six of its top seven scorers back, led by senior forwards Jacob Kalandyk (17 goals, 15 assists) and Josh Foltz (17G, 13A), as well as graduate forward Jackson Vercellono (10G, 18A), the Flames feature plenty of firepower on the front lines.

“Our offensive game this year is going to be awesome,” said Bartel, Liberty’s sixth-leading scorer last season with 9 goals and 12 assists.

“We are so deep at forward and the new guys we have added at forward are really good offensively and they’re going to come in and contribute right away.”

Sophomore Laz Kaebel (7 G, 15A) returns as Liberty’s fifth-leading scorer last season and will help provide leadership on a defensive unit that includes juniors Colten Kovich and Nathan Cox as well as sophomore Grant Morton. In goal, the Flames return Hunter Virostek for a fifth season. He made 61 saves in the season-ending setback against Minot State before representing Canada at the World Cup of University Hockey in Romania in April.

“Hunter is a huge part of our team and I am super excited to have him back and see what he can do this year,” Bartel said.

Bartel said the Flames have rekindled the camaraderie and competitive fire from last season, with the newcomers blending seamlessly into the practice routines and getting to know their teammates off the ice this past weekend at a retreat home on the James River.

“It’s been super fun to be back and have everybody together again,” Bartel said. “With the new guys, too, we’ve really been making it a point to have them involved early on this year. It’s been fun to get to know them and grow closer with them, to make them feel comfortable with all of us and make them feel like part of our family.”

Vercellono and senior forwards Kris Bladen and Truett Olson (10G, 11A last season) will serve as Liberty’s spiritual leaders this season.

“Those guys are a huge part of our team as well from a leadership standpoint (and) it’s been super fun to game plan with them,” Bartel said. “I am super thankful and blessed to have those guys by my side to help me lead the team. Those guys are going to do a great job this year of just leading by example and witnessing to our whole team, especially guys that are new and are interested in exploring their faith a little deeper.”

(Originally published at https://libertyclubsports.com/news/2023/9/11/mens-d1-hockey-flames-return-with-fresh-fire-renewed-focus-in-pursuit-of-first-acha-di-national-title)