Frank Serratore has put together some admirable achievements in his 12 seasons as Air Force's head hockey coach. This weekend, Serratore and his program could reach a new pinnacle.
As the Falcons take their 25-10-2 record to the Atlantic Hockey Association's postseason tournament in Rochester, N.Y., they're within two games of reaching the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive year.
It won't be easy to pull off yet another AHA title, mainly because host Rochester Institute of Technology tied Air Force for the regular-season league title. RIT also remembers the past two years, when the Falcons invaded that same Blue Cross Arena and came away with the league's guaranteed NCAA berth. So does Bentley, which faces Air Force in the AHA semifinals (2 p.m. Friday, broadcast on KCSF-AM 1300) and defeated the Falcons, 4-1, in their last meeting.
Let's put it this way: If Air Force can make it back to the NCAA again, Serratore should be honored as National Coach of the Year. No contest.
He's done a remarkable job of guiding the Falcons through this season, beginning with that 13-0 start and a 4-1 win against Colorado College. After enduring a flat stretch, Air Force finished strong and won 3-1 at RIT in the regular-season finale to earn the AHA's top postseason seed.
Junior goaltender Andrew Volkening has been around throughout this three-year run, as have standout senior defenseman Greg Flynn and forwards Brent Olson, Josh Frider and Mike Phillipich, among others. Then there's sophomore forward Jacques Lamoureux of Grand Forks, N.D., who has emerged as another rising star to provide more offensive punch.
Here's a wrinkle for this year: Air Force wants more than just to reach the tournament again. Serratore's guys want to go beyond that first round, after honorable but disappointing losses the past two years to Minnesota (4-3, after leading 3-1 in the third period) and Miami of Ohio (3-2 in overtime).
But the Falcons' only route to the NCAA is winning the AHA tournament. The title game, by the way, will be at 5 p.m. Mountain time Saturday, also on AM 1300 if Air Force is involved. It'll be worth turning on the radio.
Meanwhile, Colorado College can only watch the rest of college hockey's postseason after yet another first-round playoff loss on home ice. CC's late-season success had been encouraging, but the Tigers went back into their lifeless shell against Minnesota-Duluth. After that sweep, you have to assume head coach Scott Owens will look to the future with a new approach of some sort and, hopefully, stronger team leadership.
Every year, the NCAA men's basketball tournament bracket comes out and, without fail, every year the reaction across America starts with a two-part ritual.
First, we have to pass along our sympathies and pay homage to the teams that should have made it but didn't. San Diego State, Auburn, Florida, Creighton and Mount St. Mary's would've been better than other also-rans in the field.
Next, we have to wonder, one more time, why the selection committee insists on favoring the Big East, Atlantic Coast and Big Ten conferences. This year, of the 34 available berths beyond the automatic spots to 31 league champions, no fewer than 18 of those at-large invitations went to the three always-favored conferences. Count the three leagues' tournament winners and that makes 21, seven per conference.
Obviously, they have to draw lines inside that proverbial smoke-filled room. It's apparently OK to let the seventh-best teams from the NCAA's "holy trinity" into the field, even if that means snubbing the conferences that have produced the past three national champions (Southeastern and Big 12).
And even if it means passing over a team like San Diego State (23-9), which came within a three-pointer of winning the Mountain West tournament after beating Nevada-Las Vegas and Brigham Young, and sharing the regular-season title. Also, for some reason, the SEC only came away with three berths (Mississippi State, Tennessee and LSU).
If you ask me, the NCAA should have a formula that spreads those invitations more evenly and doesn't allow more than half of any conference to make the Big Dance.
OK, enough of the ritual. Unfortunately, it's too late to help with filling out your bracket for that workplace pool. But that doesn't stop us from a little analysis to compare against the picks you've already made.
My usual approach is to determine how strong the No. 1 seeds are, and whether any might be vulnerable. Louisville and Connecticut appear strong enough. Pittsburgh is less certain, and North Carolina looks even more shaky. But for some reason (subconscious bias, perhaps?), Pitt and Carolina have lucked their way into the softest regional brackets.
From this view, the selection committee's biggest mistake came in how it placed the No. 2 seeds. Duke (East) and Oklahoma (South) could switch places with Memphis (West) and Michigan State (Midwest), and the entire outlook would be different. Memphis really got the shaft, after playing for the title (and almost beating Kansas) last year, coming back with a 31-3 season and then slipping into the same regional as UConn.
Now, look for teams that are under-seeded. They might not reach the Final Four, but they could be bracket-busters. Often it can be the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds that cause havoc.
In that South Regional, for example, the door is open for Gonzaga (4) or Syracuse (3) to take advantage if/when North Carolina falls. In the East, watch for Villanova (3) or Xavier (4) to pounce.
We could go on and on. But the games have started, so why not just watch?
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