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Pieces in place for Air Force to return to NCAA Tournament

By: BRIAN GOMEZ
March 26, 2012
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photo - Air Force left wing Tony Thomas (left) recorded 11 points this season, and he's expected to return next season. The Falcons finished 21-11-7 for a school-record sixth straight winning season and captured Atlantic Hockey Association regular-season and tournament titles before suffering a 2-0 defeat Saturday to Boston College in the NCAA Tournament. Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Air Force left wing Tony Thomas (left) recorded 11 points this season, and he's expected to return next season. The Falcons finished 21-11-7 for a school-record sixth straight winning season and captured Atlantic Hockey Association regular-season and tournament titles before suffering a 2-0 defeat Saturday to Boston College in the NCAA Tournament. Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS 

WORCESTER, Mass. – Air Force loses its offensive captain in Paul Weisgarber, what’s probably the strongest defensive pairing in school history in Tim Kirby and Scott Mathis and a backup goaltender in Stephen Caple who was a starter more than half of the season.

The cupboard isn’t bare, though. In fact, it’s packed with plenty of reasons for optimism.

Top point producer Kyle De Laurell, top scorer John Kruse and starting goaltender Jason Torf will return for Air Force, which finished 21-11-7 for a school-record sixth straight winning season and captured Atlantic Hockey Association regular-season and tournament titles before suffering a 2-0 defeat Saturday to Boston College in the NCAA Tournament.

Weisgarber marked 24 points as a senior; Kirby and Mathis combined for 52 points and a plus-16 rating; and Caple went 13-5-5 with a 2.16 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage, including a 10-2-2 record in the 14 games that Torf was sidelined because of a strained groin. They’ve each been a large factor in Air Force’s run of sustained success – the Falcons have seven AHA titles (five tournament and two regular season) in the past six years, their five NCAA Tournament losses during that stretch by a total of six goals.

Air Force’s top line of De Laurell, Kruse and Chad Demers combined for 92 points, with 38 points by De Laurell, 16 goals by Kruse and 24 points by Demers. And Torf was 8-5-2 with a 1.73 GAA and a .929 save percentage – head and shoulders above his new backup, Paul Moberg, who appeared in only two games as a freshman, and third-string goaltender David Bosner, who practiced but didn’t play after undergoing surgery on his thumb.

Back for the Falcons are Stephen Carew, Jason Fabian and Casey Kleisinger, who scored nine goals apiece, and Cole Gunner, who tallied eight goals. Returning as well are Adam McKenzie, who recorded 18 points; Tony Thomas, who had 11 points; and Scott Holm and George Michalke III, who had 10 points apiece. Five recruits have committed to Air Force, and Falcons coach Frank Serratore expects more contributions from Alex Halloran, who was limited to 15 games due to an injured knee, in addition to Mike McDonald and Jacob Musselman.

Serratore stressed the need for “a new leader to emerge” with Weisgarber gone, and the Falcons are going to have “a different mix” on defense, where Eric Artman, Mike Walsh and Dan Weissenhofer will join McKenzie, Halloran, McDonald and Musselman. Ryan Timar brings some experience among the forwards, with Brad McBride, Ben Persian and Mitch Torrel each displaying flashes of potential. Serratore said, “We don’t have any bad players on our team. We just don’t. … Our forward lines, we’re not worried about at all.”

As usual, Air Force has drafted a challenging nonconference schedule, starting the season in a tournament hosted by Alaska-Anchorage, where it will meet Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska-Fairbanks, then playing Colorado College and Denver in single games. It also will play in a tournament hosted by Minnesota, with other participants of Boston College and Alabama-Huntsville, and it will play two games at Penn State, entering its inaugural year.

Likely being tabbed the favorite to repeat in the AHA is “a good place to be in,” Serratore said. “We’re used to that, and that’s where we want to be every year.” Asked if the loss to Boston College will toughen his players, Serratore said, “It certainly isn’t going to soften them. … The NCAA Tournaments have shown us how close we are to greatness.”

In the NCAA Tournament, “we’re not playing the No. 2 seed, we’re not playing the No. 3 seed, we’re not playing the No. 4 seed,” Serratore added. “We’re playing one of the top two teams in the country – that’s the way it is. There are no moral victories. But in terms of how we’ve performed, it’s not like we’re playing the play-in game to get to the NCAA Tournament. We’re playing the big dogs, and we’ve taken the big dogs right to the limit.”

Contact Brian Gomez: 719-636-0256 or brian.gomez@gazette.com. Facebook: Brian Gomez. Twitter: @gazettehockey. Google+: Brian Gomez.

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