Air Force’s hockey team can beat St. Cloud State, and this is not some blurry, far-removed-from-reality vision of the future.
The Falcons are the No. 16 seed in the 16-team NCAA Hockey Tournament. They have been deemed the weakest team, and St. Cloud is allegedly the best.
But any sport with a goalie is a sport of upsets. This means Friday’s Air Force-St. Cloud ice battle could be full of surprise.
Three reasons why the Falcons could shock everyone – except themselves – with a victory Friday in Sioux Falls, S.D.:
One – Billy the Greek
Eleven months ago, goalkeeper Shane Starrett announced he was abandoning the Falcons to sign a two-season, $325,000 pro contract. The move stunned coach Frank Serratore and threatened the health of the 2017-2018 season.
Starrett was a rising college superstar who had just compiled a 26-6-4 record as starter. He would be replaced by Billy Christopoulos, called “Billy the Greek” by Serratore. Let’s just say Christopoulos failed to overwhelm in 2016-2017 with one win in six games as a starter.
The pressure was enormous, but that was obvious.
Well, obvious to everyone not named Christopoulos.
"I'm not too worried about that," Christopoulos told me in April. "My team takes a lot of pressure off me."
Christopoulos genuinely seemed to have no doubts. His belief in his teammates, first, and himself, second, banished all fear.
His coach wasn’t so sure. Serratore had doubts about Christopoulos serving as Air Force’s human hockey wall.
“The jury was out,” Serratore says. “I was from Missouri. You had to show me.”
Meanwhile, Air Force players were unanimous. They told Serratore and the Air Force coaching staff that Christopoulos would deliver. Players kept up their Billy the Greek campaign all summer. Coaches mentioned his struggles in games. Players countered with stories about Christopoulos and his consistent mastery in practice.
Just watch, players predicted, the practice Christopoulos will become the game-time Christopoulos.
“The players believed, but sometimes the players believe in the tooth fairy, too,” Serratore says.
Dan Bailey, a junior defenseman, explains the players’ steadfast faith.
“Shane is a great talent,” Bailey says, “but it was no secret that Billy had talent himself. I definitely did believe in Billy. He’s the greatest teammate, and we all had seen the way Billy handled himself in practice.”
The players were right. Air Force scored a single goal in the deciding game of the Atlantic Hockey quarterfinals, but Christopoulos dived and scrambled and willed his way to a clutch shutout over Army. He kept the season alive.
Christopoulos, once a resident of the bench, developed into the team’s undisputed MVP.
Two – Atlantic Hockey is tougher than you think
Atlantic Hockey is not a glamor conference, but Atlantic Hockey has skated to first-round NCAA Hockey upsets four times since 2009 and, more importantly, to two upsets in the past three seasons. Western Michigan, Denver and Michigan – all from glam conferences – have fallen to Atlantic Hockey teams.
Three – Belief
A year ago, Air Force defeated Western Michigan, 5-4, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before falling 3-2 to Harvard. Since 2007, the Falcons have won two NCAA games and lost in overtime three times. They will not be intimidated when they arrive on the showcase ice of the NCAA Tournament. They believe, strongly, they can win.
These Falcons do not boast an elite scorer. These Falcons were struggling in ninth place of 11-team Atlantic Hockey in mid-February.
But they’ve won seven of their last nine, with a tie. They have a blazing hot goaltender protecting their net. They are deep.
Bailey smiles when he thinks of the “wave after wave” of hungry cadets who will attack St. Cloud State.
Serratore laughs as he considers this edition of the Falcons, which might be his favorite among the 21 he’s coached.
“If you look at them as individuals, it’s not sexy,” he says. “But collectively they are a really, really good team.”
A really, really good team that could deliver an upset in Sioux Falls.