Even now, going on seven months later, Frank Serratore has trouble containing his emotions when the subject comes up.
To most of the college hockey world, Serratore and Air Force enhanced their national credibility last March in the NCAA Tournament's first round at Worcester, Mass. Seeded at the bottom of the 16-team NCAA field, the Falcons took on mighty Boston College in the Northeast Regional — and threatened to pull off a monumental upset. It was a 1-0 game most of the way, until a questionable late penalty called against Air Force led to a power-play goal and a 2-0 outcome.
Nobody else gave Boston College a game in the tournament, as the Eagles pounded Minnesota-Duluth (4-0), Minnesota (6-1) and Ferris State (4-1) to secure their third NCAA title in five seasons.
But if you think Air Force's head coach feels good about that, then you probably don't know Frank Serratore.
At the Colorado Springs Sports Corporation's annual Face-Off Luncheon last week, focusing on Air Force and Colorado College, Serratore was his usual eloquent, colorful self when talking about the season ahead. Only four players graduated from last year's 21-11-7 team that made it to the NCAAs for the fifth time in six years, and he has no problem with the Falcons being favored in the Atlantic Hockey Association.
After the luncheon, asked about his stated goal to make it back to the tournament and advance further (obviously meaning the Frozen Four), our conversation turned to that Boston College game.
And the frustration came out.
"It still burns me, how that ended," Serratore says. "It just wasn't right. Down the stretch there, we were hanging with them, and during the TV timeouts, our guys' confidence was building. I could tell, they just really believed something big was about to happen. I'm not saying for sure that it would have, but the guys weren't scared. They thought we had them where we wanted them."
Then came the penalty with 1:53 remaining, a cross-checking call that seemed clearly like nit-picking so late in a game that had so few whistles. Just 22 seconds later, the Eagles scored to remove all doubt.
Serratore wouldn't comment at the time, but he says now that an NCAA representative apologized personally to him after the game for that penalty call.
"I even got e-mails from some BC fans, saying they were sorry it ended that way," Serratore says. "The thing that bothered me the most was that not just our kids, but everybody, got robbed of what could have been a tremendous finish — no matter which team won."
That'll be the last wistful look back, though, because Serratore has fresh optimism for the season ahead, with a trip to Alaska this week followed by two big challenges: at home against Colorado College on Nov. 19 (already near a sellout as of press time) followed by a bus ride north to face the University of Denver on Nov. 20. Air Force beat CC last year, but got thumped the next night by DU.
"It wasn't a rivalry for a lot of years, but now we're 2-2 against them the last four times we've played," Serratore says. "We're not sneakin' up on them anymore."
Air Force enters the season ranked 20th in one national poll, with a younger but promising Colorado College at No. 19.
"We're under the radar a little bit," CC coach Scott Owens says of his team, picked seventh in the Western College Hockey Association after losing standout Jaden Schwartz and nearly half of the Tigers' scoring. But they have senior Rylan Schwartz, Jaden's older brother, along with a handful of other veterans, some impressive freshmen and returning goaltenders Josh Thorimbert and Joe Howe.
"It's just a matter of whether we can score," Owens says. "But I like our team. We're bigger — we average 193 pounds a man, which we hope will help us down the stretch and when we're playing on more smaller sheets."
That CC-AFA game will be a good early gauge, but it's obvious Serratore and Owens are much more concerned about where they'll be come March.
Because, as Air Force knows all too well, that's when college hockey teams make the memories that don't go away.
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