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Serratore: No time to celebrate 

End Zone

On a chilly Saturday night outside Pittsburgh, in one of major-college hockey's smallest arenas (capacity 1,100), Air Force head coach Frank Serratore reached a special milestone.

But Serratore didn't relish his 300th career victory as a college head coach, any more than a week earlier when he made it to 250 wins with Air Force.

Those numbers certainly provide a reflection on the job that the 54-year-old Serratore has done in 15 seasons with the Falcons. But there was a much deeper meaning to Air Force's 3-0 blanking of Robert Morris at the Island Sports Center in Moon Township, Pa., in both teams' regular-season finale last weekend.

First and foremost, the Falcons (15-6-6 in league play, 17-9-7 overall) pulled out the Atlantic Hockey Association title, edging Niagara by a single point but with four other challengers within three points of the top. That means a first-round bye in the AHA playoffs, then a home quarterfinal series before the league's final four convene as usual in Rochester, N.Y., to determine the conference's automatic qualifier to the NCAA Tournament.

"I am so proud of our guys," Serratore told media afterward. "This is just what the doctor ordered."

Nothing about himself, of course. But then again, count his years of coaching junior hockey in the Midwest, and his career win total now stands at 579.

Besides, Serratore's focus now is creating a new version of the script that has become so amazingly familiar for the Falcons. They've reached the NCAA four times in five years, highlighted by beating top-seeded Michigan 2-0 in the first round of 2009. Last year they faced another No. 1 seed, Yale, in Bridgeport, Conn., just a few miles from the Yale campus, and nearly knocked off the Bulldogs.

In fact, the Falcons have never lost an NCAA game by more than one goal: 2007, 4-3 to Minnesota; 2008, 3-2 in overtime to Miami (Ohio); 2009, 3-2 in overtime to Vermont; 2011, 2-1 in overtime to Yale. That's painful, but impressive.

Now they're trying again, though it won't be easy with so much balance in the AHA this season. One off night against a so-so opponent might have been OK during some of those earlier runs to the NCAA, but not this time.

Regardless of what happens, Serratore deserves huge credit for what he's done. Since joining the AHA in 2006, the Falcons' six-year record is 121-75-32. Yet, if you ask me, this team and this season might represent his finest coaching job yet.

Air Force came into 2011-12 merely having to replace All-American forward Jacques Lamoureux, standout defenseman Derrick Burnett and a handful of others who had helped produce the finest stretch of success in the AFA program's history. Then, on the season's first weekend, sophomore goaltender Jason Torf suffered a strained groin, which sidelined him for nearly three months.

Senior Stephen Caple stepped in admirably. Torf played a few games in late January, and reassumed his role as the every-night goalie on Jan. 30 with a 1-1 overtime tie at Canisius. Counting that night, he now has played nine straight games (going 5-2-2) and allowed only 10 goals, with four shutouts along the way.

So now the Falcons, with only four seniors (Caple, forward Paul Weisgarber and defenders Scott Mathis and Tim Kirby), will try to reach the NCAA again.

Don't bet against them. And with so much experience returning next season, that streak of winning records shouldn't end any time soon.

routon@csindy.com

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