Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Know Your Enemy: Alabama-Huntsville

This week, we look at the last of the three programs invited to the RPI Holiday Tournament - and it's another team down on its luck. While UConn's luck was rough on the ice, and Bowling Green's concerns were a combination of on-ice and off-ice misery, this week's "Know Your Enemy" completes the circle with a program who's going through mainly off-ice turmoil.

Alabama-Huntsville
Nickname: Chargers
Location: Huntsville, AL
Founded: 1969
Conference: Independent
National Championships: 2 (Division II in 1996 and 1998)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2010
Last Frozen Four: 1998 (Division II)
Coach: Chris Luongo (1st season)
2009-10 Record: 12-18-3 (6-10-2 CHA, 3rd place)
Series: RPI leads, 3-0-1
First Game: November 30, 1991 (Huntsville, AL)
Last RPI win: January 15, 1993 (Troy, NY)
Last UAH win: Never

2010-11 games: November 27, 2010 (Troy, NY - potential), December 30-31, 2010 (Huntsville, AL)
Key players: F Neil Ruffini, sr.; F Cody Campbell, jr.; F Alex Allan, fr.; F Lasse Uusivirta, fr.; D Curtis deBruyn, so.

The Chargers, long a quirk of the college hockey world as the only program in the Deep South, embark on their first season in over a decade as an independent program this year. What does that mean? Well, teams that are part of a conference have a much easier time with scheduling. When Seth Appert sits down to work out schedules for the future, he's already got a significant chunk of it done with before he even starts - the ECAC schedule is 22 games long, and every league weekend other than the travel partner games are predetermined by the league. For independents, they don't have that luxury. They need to find enough teams willing to play them as part of their non-conference schedule to fill out an entire season.

To their credit, they've got 32 games on their schedule, which is just about a full schedule, but most teams willing to play UAH required them to hit the road - the Chargers have only 8 contests on their schedule on their home ice at the Von Braun Center in Huntsville. Four other home games will take place in Birmingham or Nashville, TN.

RPI, however, may have done more than any other team to help UAH fill out their schedule. Not only did they extend an invitation to the RPI Tournament in November, the Engineers will travel to Huntsville for games on the last two days of 2010, helping them fill 4 full games on their schedule.

Hockey isn't just some fleeting fad in Huntsville - their hockey pedigree dates back to 1979, when the Chargers began what would quickly become a wildly successful club team. The first iteration of UAH hockey finished with a 21-1-0 record in 1980, and the Chargers quickly became the dominant force in club hockey, especially once Doug Ross took the reins in 1982, earning three straight national championships between 1982 and 1984, and just missing out on four straight national crowns after losing to North Dakota State in the championship in 1985.

The next season, UAH's athletic department joined the NCAA, and with that came varsity hockey for the first time. The Chargers' first season in the NCAA was in 1986-87, when they finished with an impressive 20-10-0 record in Division II, as famed Alabama governor George Wallace named Huntsville "The Hockey Capital of the South."

UAH's first stint as a Division I independent came in just their second season in the NCAA, as the Division II championship had been abolished in 1985. The Chargers spent five seasons in Division I, struggling to a 63-81-9 record in that span.

In 1992, the NCAA reinstated the Division II championship, and the Chargers returned to that level, where they would build one of the strangest rivalries in college sports while experiencing the true heyday of their program. Between 1993 and 1998, the Bemidji State Beavers from tiny Bemidji, MN played in the Division II national championship game every single season - but more often than not, so were the Chargers, who missed only two of those contests during the same time period. The pure domination of the two schools from very different parts of the country gave birth to a rivalry between them that lasts to this day.

Ross' teams put up a record of 125-33-10 during those years in Division II, including an unbeaten record of 26-0-3 in 1996 on their way to their first ever national championship. They would claim a second one in 1998 after falling to Bemidji State a year prior. That would be the last hurrah in Division II for both UAH and BSU, as the NCAA announced its intent to abolish the Division II championship again after the 1998-99 season, and both teams returned to Division I as the core of a new conference: College Hockey America.

After transitional season as an independent - which saw the Chargers play a largely D-II schedule - the CHA got underway in time for the 1999-2000 season, and UAH was immediately among the best teams in the conference. They won 21 games in 2001, eclipsing the 20-win mark for the first time as a full Division I program on their way to the CHA regular season title. They would win a second regular season crown in 2003, but the tournament title - and thus, an NCAA bid - eluded them. The Chargers put up their last winning season to date in 2006.

In 2007, Doug Ross, the only coach the school had known for its 22 varsity seasons, announced he would be leaving the program in the middle of what was already a rough season. But the team turned it on when it counted, in the CHA playoffs. Despite coming in last place in the 5-team league during the regular season, the Chargers made an astounding run through the playoffs, claiming the CHA title for a fairytale ending to Ross' career, becoming the first team in the history of Division I hockey to finish last in their conference but earn an NCAA bid. Matched with juggernaut Notre Dame, few gave the Chargers a chance, but UAH would ultimately take the Irish to a second overtime before bowing out.

Michigan State alum Danton Cole took over for Ross as the Chargers' future started to get a little murky. Air Force's defection to Atlantic Hockey in 2006 had left the CHA with five teams, one short of what it needed to maintain its automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. In the midst of Ross' last season, Wayne State announced it would fold its program at the end of the season, leaving the CHA with just four teams, and it became obvious that each team would need to look elsewhere and find another conference for the sake of their programs. Cole's first two teams failed to crack 10 wins, but the team rebounded last season to finish third in the CHA, earning wins over Robert Morris and Niagara to claim the final CHA championship and a 2nd trip to the NCAA Tournament despite losing records ahead of both trips.

Prior to last season, the chips began to fall into place for the other teams in the CHA, as Bemidji State gained acceptance into the WCHA, while Niagara and Robert Morris announced that they would join Atlantic Hockey. Alabama-Huntsville, owing to its geographic location, applied to join the CCHA, and their hopes were increased somewhat by the news that the CCHA's Nebraska-Omaha would join Bemidji State in the WCHA - UAH would thus become the CCHA's 12th team. Unfortunately, word came down that the Chargers' application to join the league had been rejected: the CCHA would soldier on with 11 teams rather than take on the Chargers, leaving UAH no choice but to rejoin the Division I independent ranks for a third time. They are now the only independent program in Division I, and continue to seek a permanent home. Without one, the long-term viability of the program will be in serious jeopardy.

Additionally, Cole announced last month that he would leave UAH for a position with USA Hockey. His position was quickly filled with assistant coach Chris Luongo, which will likely soften the blow of losing one of the key pieces holding a fragile program together.

UAH is probably the best team in the RPI Tournament field outside of the Engineers - but as we've already seen, that's not terribly difficult to accomplish. The Chargers had scoring issues of their own last year, netting only 2.21 goals per game, which was good for only 52nd out of 58 teams in the nation, but better by a good sight than UConn or Bowling Green. Their defense was much better, finishing with a team GAA of 2.70, but that might be a bit dicey coming into the new season.

The Chargers have one goaltender returning from the 2009-10 campaign, losing starting goaltender Cameron Talbot to the New York Rangers with a year of eligibility to go - thanks largely to an impressive showing against Miami in the NCAA tournament - and losing little-used backup Blake MacNicol to graduation. They have two freshmen coming in to replace them, C.J. Groh and Clarke Saunders. The one returning goalie, Johnny Griggs, didn't see any ice time last season. At this point, it's too early to tell which one will get the nod as the go-to guy, but considering the number of times the Engineers may see the Chargers, we'll probably see more than one, or even all three. Additionally, they graduated three starting defensemen last season - so defensively, it's hard to know what to expect. It probably won't be as good as it was last year.

The good news for Huntsville is that they return four of their top six scorers from last season. None breached 10 goals last season, but all will be another year older and another year wiser, so expect UAH to be at least somewhat competent with the puck.

As mentioned last week, it's probably preferable simply from a variety standpoint to avoid UAH in the RPI tournament if at all possible, but given the quality of the teams each one faces in the first round, they are likely favorites to meet in the championship. The two games in Huntsville beckon a month later - and if you're a fan of college hockey in general as well as an RPI fan, you owe it to yourself to consider taking a trip to spend New Year's in Alabama, because you'll be hard-pressed to find a more unique college hockey locale.

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