Providence — Saturday night wasn’t the result Air Force’s coaches or players were looking for, but there is still plenty of reason to hold their heads up high.
The Falcons played right with a Harvard team that boasted eight NHL Draft picks and several other elite college hockey players, but came up a goal short in a 3-2 loss at the Dunkin Donuts Center in the East Regional Final.
“That’s a good team, that’s a great team, that Harvard team,” said Air Force coach Frank Serratore.
“I think the people around the country know the guys in blue are a pretty good hockey team as well. We took their best punch in the second period, and it’s three nothing against a team like that. It’s not looking to good, but all year long we’ve persevered and more times than not we’ve come from behind in games like that and we did not lose close, we’ve come back and won those games,” Serratore continued.
After falling behind 3-0, Brady Tomlak and Jordan Himley scored 15 seconds apart on a delayed penalty and a power play, respectively, to send the Air Force faithful into a frenzy. The Falcons pushed hard and came close several times in the waning minutes with their goalie pulled for an extra attacker, but it wasn’t meant to be.
“That’s all it takes so we never stop believing and obviously that rejuvenated our bench and set the tone for the rest of the game and got Harvard on their heels and gave us life,” said junior defenseman Dylan Abood. “I’m really proud of our guys for how we responded to that. I think we were never out of the fight and stuck with it.”
The loss meant the Falcons will fall a game short of a trip to the Frozen Four, but once the dust settles, it won’t put a damper on the accomplishments of the 2016-17 team. 27 wins, Atlantic Hockey Tournament Champion and a win over the favored Western Michigan Broncos in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re extremely proud of this season. We dropped the regular season conference championship in the last game, so that was a little adversity for us, and we had to battle through the playoffs. I’m really proud of the guys for battling through against great opponents and we saw another one tonight,” said sophomore forward Kyle Haak who had two goals and an assist in the regional.
“I couldn’t be prouder of our guys,” Serratore added.
The commitment and sacrifice student-athletes make at a military institution is second to none, but Haak expressed his appreciation for the support the team received all season and this weekend in Providence.
“We’ve got an incredible support team between our families, friends, even people in the Air Force, across all military branches and people supporting those branches, it’s phenomenal,” said Haak, who finished the season with 14 goals.
Serratore, who just concluded his 24th season behind the bench, is as genuine of a coach as you’ll find. He closed his press conference with a heart-felt message on his feelings to come to work everyday.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our guys. How many times do you see the opposing team salute winning team before they go off? That’s the kind of guys we have, those are the kind of people that we have, that are representing our country, and it may sound corny but it’s not,” Serratore said.
“There’s a lot of quality guys on every one of these teams, but the guys that you got playing at Army and Air Force, playing at those service academy’s, they’re high quality first-class guys. I don’t feel bad that we lost, I just feel bad that the journey’s over and I couldn’t be more proud of our guys, the way they compete and the way they handle themselves, both on and off the ice. It’s a joy. People ask me how I inspire my players, I don’t inspire my players, my players inspire me and it’s a privilege to have the job that I have and Brian Riley will tell you the same thing,” Serratore continued.
Serratore could have his best team ever in 2017-18. Air Force returns its top 10 scorers and its star goaltender, Shane Starrett. The Falcons lose just three seniors so the future looks bright in Colorado Springs.
“We had high expectations to start the year and we’ll have high expectations coming next year. This was an incredible experience, one that we were very happy to have and be a part of, and we’ll be back, no question about that,” Haak said.
Haak indicated that coming so close to making the Frozen Four will leave a bitter taste in his team’s mouth and give them that much more reason to be motivated to come back better next year.
“We’re ready to work. I wish I could go back to work tomorrow, but that’s how all the guys feel and we’re going to keep working and like I said we’ll be back, absolutely.