AIR FORCE HOCKEY
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Anthony Croston (18) of the Arizona State gets the puck past Air Force goalkeeper Billy Christopoulos (44) for a goal at the Cadet Ice Arena at the U.S. Air Force Academy on Friday October 13, 2017 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).

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Air Force’s hockey team is strange and wonderful and headed, once again, to the NCAA Tournament.

The Falcons finished sixth in the 11-team Atlantic Hockey in goals scored. No player on Air Force’s team made the first or second all-conference team, and no player ranked among the conference’s top-10 leaders in goals or assists.

Despite everything, Air Force is headed to the NCAA Tournament, where they boast the might and poise to deliver a severe jolt to the state of Minnesota. The Falcons, a No. 16 seed, face top seed St. Cloud State in the first round with a possible battle looming against Minnesota-Mankato or Minnesota-Duluth in the second round.

Coach Frank Serratore adores his team, which overcame the departure of superstar goalkeeper Shane Starrett along with the ceaseless curse of injury.

 “We’re going to the tournament in Sioux Falls,” Serratore said, “and we ain’t going to be the hottest dude at that bar, but I’ll tell you what, we got something special.”

What’s special, Frank?

“We got heart and we got substance,” he answered. “When I look at our team individually, I say, ‘I don’t know about this.’ But when I look at them collectively, I see the strength. They believe in each other. They play for each other.

“This might be the best team I’ve ever coached. Not the best group of individuals, but the best team. We shouldn’t be where we are right now. It doesn’t compute. Our power play is terrible. We have no top-end scorers.”

It was not an easy ride. In mid-February, the Falcons were ninth in Atlantic Hockey and climbed into a tie for third. Serratore has earned seven trips to the NCAA Tournament, but every time other time he was blessed with home ice for the Atlantic Hockey quarterfinals.

 This season, his Falcons endured a quarterfinal journey to the highly hostile ice at Army, where the season came achingly close to ending.

Ten months ago, the great question that hovered over the Falcons was goalkeeper Billy Christopoulos. Starrett, after delivering a superlative sophomore season, abandoned the Falcons to sign a pro contact.

Could the goalkeeper, called “Billy the Greek” by Serratore, produce this season? Remember,  Christopoulos had spent his career sitting close to Serratore on the bench.

Christopoulos turned that question into an exclamation mark, especially at Army. After a breezy 5-3 win at Army in the first game of the quarters, the Falcons crawled to a single goal in the final two games.

But that one goal was enough to remain alive because of a superlative performance by Christopoulos. After barely surviving at Army, the Falcons dominated in the Atlantic Hockey semis and finals in Rochester.

The Falcons head to Sioux Falls as serious underdogs. No way around that truth. But they also head to Sioux Falls on a serious tear after winning seven of their last nine, with one tie.

The past few weeks have been a blur for Serratore, and as we talked on Sunday he had not yet scouted St. Cloud. He knows little about the Huskies.

But the coach knows his team intimately, and he likes just about everything he sees.

“You know what? I think whoever gets us isn’t going to have a lot of fun,” Serratore said. “We are a tough team to play against right now.”

Tough, yes. Strange, for sure, but an overachieving and inspiring one, too.