As hockey coaches go, you just have to love Frank Serratore. Not only can he get more out of a team than almost anyone in the world, the man is unchallenged as college hockey's quote-spewing champion.
And when he wins, especially the way he has with Air Force, it makes even those of us supposedly neutral media-types want to join in the applause.
Serratore has spent the past 11 seasons developing the AFA program, but he surely never felt more fulfilled than last Saturday night at Rochester, N.Y., as the Falcons pulled out a 5-4 double-overtime victory against stubborn Mercyhurst College for their second consecutive Atlantic Hockey Association championship.
The victory sends Air Force back to the NCAA Tournament, and it surely has the Falcons feeling more respected and also, to be honest, legitimate than after earning their first national berth a year ago.
Afterward, talking to media, Serratore was at his silver-tongued finest. He's known for his adept use of profanity, firing bleeper bombs in every direction (among adults, of course), but he knows when to turn on the pure eloquence.
"Once is luck. Twice is skill," Serratore said in Rochester. "It validated this group as a champion. We're not a one-hit wonder."
On Jan. 18, the Falcons manhandled the University of Denver in a 5-2 stunner. The next night, they stood up valiantly to Colorado College before falling 2-1. But when senior star Eric Ehn was carried off with a broken leg, that appeared to ruin Air Force's hopes.
It's fair to say nobody outside the Academy gave the Falcons a chance to be where they are today. Air Force lost five out of six, but Serratore wasn't giving up, and he was making sure his players didn't either.
The turnaround came Feb. 9, a Saturday night on the road against that same Mercyhurst in Erie, Pa. Mercyhurst had won 3-1 Friday, leaving Air Force at 13-11-5, and another loss would send the Falcons into an off week on a downer. Instead, Air Force awakened to throttle Mercyhurst in a 7-0 rout.
And the Falcons haven't lost since. They finished the season on a 4-0-1 run, good for third in the AHA, then swept Bentley in the first playoff round. But still they were underdogs at the AHA tourney, with regular-season champion Army appearing to have the inside track.
Air Force drew host Rochester Institute of Technology in the semifinals, which looked ominous until the Falcons took apart RIT in a 5-0 blowout. Meanwhile, in the other semifinal, Mercyhurst knocked off Army. But that didn't make the finale any easier, because Mercyhurst smelled that same NCAA reward. When the Lakers stormed back from a 2-0 deficit to take leads of 3-2 and 4-3, Air Force could have crumbled.
Instead, the Falcons found a hero in Josh Frider, a 5-foot-9 junior forward from Moorhead, Minn. He scored the tying goal that led to overtime, and after 23 minutes of frantic, back-and-forth battles in sudden death, Frider knocked in a rebound for the victory.
And today, nobody thinks of Air Force as a one-man team anymore. Not with guys like Frider, sophomore goaltender Andrew Volkening, junior forward Brent Olson (the league tourney MVP) and soph forward Matt Fairchild providing a solid nucleus for next year.
Ah, but this isn't about next year. It's about now, and Air Force has had the advantage of a week off to regain its freshness and find out its NCAA destination. It could be the West Regional at World Arena, but it also could be traveling to face a No. 1 seed such as Michigan or New Hampshire.
The bonus now is Ehn might return for the NCAAs. He wouldn't be the same, but he could plug away like the other Falcons, whose 8-0-1 run is the nation's longest unbeaten streak. They're 21-11-6 overall, and their coach is just getting warmed up. Like when media asked Serratore if he cared which region Air Force might get.
"We'll go anywhere," he said. "We're the Air Force. Not the bus force."
Bits and pieces: Not all Air Force-related news was good last week, as former AFA fullback Ted Sundquist was fired as the Denver Broncos' general manager. He spent 16 years with Denver as a smart, headstrong and loyal soldier. But the guy who was one of Air Force's first wishbone fullbacks (1980-83) became a victim of head coach Mike Shanahan, who dumped Sundquist with no notice and replaced him by shuffling others. The good news: Sundquist is well-respected and should land elsewhere, in the NFL or the college ranks.
If you watched any of the epic Minnesota-Minnesota State hockey playoff series last weekend on FOX College Sports, you saw one of the longest, most dramatic three-game marathons in memory. Minnesota's winning goal Sunday night came from sophomore Tony Lucia, son of head coach Don Lucia. Tony spent his formative years (1993-99) in Colorado Springs when his dad was at Colorado College, and the youngster learned the game skating around those CC teams. Don called the series last weekend the most amazing of his 25-year coaching career, and it's hard to argue.
NCAA bracket tips: My early Final Four has North Carolina, Kansas, Stanford (over Memphis) and UCLA. Watch for chaos in the weak West region; Drake and West Virginia are possible spoilers. Others worth a gamble for a few rounds: Butler, Clemson and Temple.
Coming soon NFL should release its 2008 schedule in the next few weeks, but don't expect much prime-time exposure for the Denver Broncos.
See the headline? Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie, who owns the marathon world record, won't run the event at the 2008 Olympics because of what he calls "extreme pollution" in Beijing. He still might try the 10,000 meters.
On the air NCAA Hockey Selection Show airs 9:30 a.m. Sunday on ESPN2. At that time, Colorado College will likely be flying back from the WCHA Final Five in St. Paul, Minn. But Air Force will be watching for sure.
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