The hanger will be full this season for Air Force Academy.
Coming off one of the most successful season’s in program history, the Falcons will welcome a 12-member freshman class to the 21 players returning from last season’s team. Air Force went 27-10-5 in 2016-17, won the Atlantic Hockey Tournament title and advanced to the NCAA Tournament elite eight.
The 12-member recruting class, announced recently by coach Frank Serratore, includes six forwards, three defensemen and three goaltenders. Three of the recruits played junior in the United States Hockey League (USHL), seven played in the North American Hockey League (NAHL), and one each played in the Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League (RMJHL) and U.S. Prospects Hockey League (USHPHL).
The 33 players on the roster are up five from the 28 rostered a season ago.
What follows is a position-by-position look at the Falcons and where some of the newcomers might fit in.
The Falcons return 13 players up front, and all of them played in at least 14 games except Matt Pulver, whose freshman season ended after eight games because of a shoulder injury that required surgery. Air Force has its top nine scorers back (seven of them forwards) – led by rising senior Jordan Himley (37 points) and rising juniors Kyle Haak (33), Evan Giesler (29) and Evan Feno (25), so lineup spots up front will be hotly contested.
Five of the six newcomers played in the NAHL, with Walker Sommer the exception. Sommer played for Jersey of the USHPL and scored 21 goals among his nearly point-per-game pace of 35 points.
Sommer, Isaac Theisen and Topeka teammates Marshall Bowery and Max Harper bring goal-scoring pedigrees. Bowery had 18 among his 35 points for his NAHL team, while Harper led the Roadrunners with 22 goals and 41 points. Theisen is the highest scorer among the recruits with 46 points (19 goals) in 56 games for Coulee Region (NAHL). Theisen also made cameos with the prestigious U.S. National Team Development Program during the 2012-13 and ’13-14 seasons.
Alex Falconer had 26 points in 53 games with Coulee Region (NAHL), and Shawn Knowlton had 18 points in 28 games for Aberdeen (NAHL).
Theisen (6-foot), Falconer (6-3) and Harper (6-3) add size as well.
The Falcons graduated forwards A.J. Reid (an assistant captain) and versatile Tyler Rostenkowski. Rising sophomore Doug Gutierrez, who did not see any game action last season, is not on the roster for the upcoming season.
The Falcons return seven defensemen, six of whom saw significant action a season ago. However, the group also was depleted at times because of injuries, particularly season-ending ones to Jonathan Kopacka (ankle) and Joe Tyran (ACL).
It’s a veteran group – led by seniors Dylan Abood (a co-captain), Phil Boje (an All-Atlantic Hockey pick), Kopacka and Kyle Mackey as well as emerging juniors Dan Bailey and Matt Koch, both of whom turned on the scoring spigot with much more regularity.
However, last season demonstrated the need for depth at the position, and in Jake Levin, Alex Mehnert and Zach Mirageas, the hope is that has been secured.
The 6-2 Levin was a captain for Odessa (NAHL) and had 23 points in 55 games. Mehnert had 12 points in his first USHL season (Omaha) after piling up 37 the season before Fairbanks of the NAHL. Mirageas had 10 points for Bloomington of the USHL.
The Falcons lost co-captain Johnny Hrabovsky to graduation, and Matt Burchill, who played six games as a freshman, is not on the roster for the upcoming season.
At no position will freshmen be counted on to contribute as quickly as in net, where only junior Billy Christopoulos returns. Christopoulos, who started ahead of Shane Starrett at the beginning of the 2015-16 season, offers the Falcons a strong starting option after Starrett departed to sign a pro contract with the Edmonton Oilers in the spring.
Behind Christopoulos, Erik Anderson, Zach LaRocque and Will Ulrich will battle it out for the No. 2 job. Each offers intriguing potential.
The 6-2 LaRocque is from Arvada, Colo., and spent the past two seasons with Cedar Rapids of the USHL. He overcame injury last season to appear in 24 games (3.90 goals-against average and .879 save percentage). In eight appearances the season before he had a 3.00 gaa and a .902 save percentage.
The 6-1 Ulrich posted solid numbers two years in a row in the NAHL – 18 wins, 2.91 gaa and .917 save percentage for Minnesota (under new AFA director of hockey Corey Millen) in 2015-16 and a 3.39 gaa and .904 saves percentage for Bismarck this past season.
Anderson played in the Colorado Springs area for Pikes Peak of the RMJHL and dominated the league, leading it in wins (19), save percentage (.940) and shutouts (four). He also had a 2.26 gaa. However, the RMJHL is a step down from the USHL and NAHL.
In addition to Starrett, rising sophomore Mac Wartick is not on the roster this season, but he, Burchill and Gutierrez remain at the Academy.
©Chris Bayee 2017