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Fall preview: Air Force Academy opens its truncated season in Massachusetts this weekend

By Chris Bayee, SportsEngine, 11/25/20, 10:00AM MST

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Hub exclusive: The Falcons, one of the three teams in Colorado to play NCAA Division I hockey, start their 2020-21 campaign Friday at American International College.

Marshall Bowery (pictured) had 10 goals for Air Force Academy a season ago. Now in his senior year, he'll be counted on for big offensive production for his team to be successful in 2020-21. All photos courtesy of Air Force Athletics

Marshall Bowery (pictured) had 10 goals for Air Force Academy a season ago. Now in his senior year, he'll be counted on for big offensive production for his team to be successful in 2020-21. All photos courtesy of Air Force Athletics

The Falcons might as well start at the top.

The Air Force Academy opens its truncated 2020-21 season this Friday in Massachusetts at American International College, the pick of Atlantic Hockey Association (AHA) coaches to win the league for the third season in a row.

That begins a campaign that includes 24 games — 20 against AHA foes, four against Division I newbie Long Island University — and two exhibitions against the U.S. National Team Development Program (NTDP) in December.

Last season ended prematurely just as Air Force was finding its wings, collecting points in five of the final six games, including an AHA first-round playoff sweep of Mercyhurst. The team's schedule this season could include games against the University of Mars and it would be OK with Falcons coach Frank Serratore.

“We just want to play,” said the coach, who is entering his 24th season at Air Force. “The games are going to be weighted more because there are fewer of them.”

Indeed, AHA is compressing the regular-season schedule into a span of just more than three months as it plans to begin its playoffs the first weekend in March.

The Falcons went 12-11-6 after an 0-7 start last season. The turnaround coincided with the emergence of Alex Schilling as the team’s starting goaltender and there was a slight uptick in offensive production.

"We’ve got a really spirited group, a very coachable group. The intensity of our workouts has been fantastic. They’re not going to be a fun group to play against. I could foresee us being a better team in the second half of the season.”

--Frank Serratore, coach of the Falcons

Six senior forwards graduated, headlined by center Brady Tomlak, who led the team with 26 points, and wings Matt Pulver and Trevor Stone (15 points apiece).

The foundation of this season’s team will be Schilling and a defense that returns eight experienced players, plus two heralded recruits.

“We are a young group. We’ve got eight seniors and only one junior,” Serratore said. The strength of our team is the three returning [senior] forwards, the three defensemen and the goaltending [Schilling is backed up by senior Zach LaRocque].”

Marshall Bowery (16 points) leads a forward group that includes classmates Max Harper (12 points) and Shawn Knowlton (7 points). The defense corps is anchored by co-captains Zach Mirageas (23 points) and Jake Levin (13 points), as well as alternate captain Alex Mehnert (12 points). 

Most Falcons teams follow a formula of the whole being greater than the sum of their parts, and this group is no exception.

“We’ve got a really spirited group, a very coachable group,” Serratore said. “The intensity of our workouts has been fantastic. They’re not going to be a fun group to play against. I could foresee us being a better team in the second half of the season.

“There’s going to be some lessons to learn, but come playoff time we’re going to be that Air Force team that nobody wants to draw their number. … When we have great teams we’re great collectively. It takes a while to become a good team.”

Jake Levin (pictured) is co-captain of the Falcons this year. The senior defender is a key cog in an Air Force group that looks to be stingy on defense.

Jake Levin (pictured) is co-captain of the Falcons this year. The senior defender is a key cog in an Air Force group that looks to be stingy on defense.

Roster by class

 

·       Seniors – 8 (3 defensemen, 3 forwards, 2 goalies)

·       Juniors – 1 (1 goalie)

·       Sophomores – 11 (6 forwards, 4 defensemen, 1 goalie)

·       Freshmen – 7 (5 forwards, 2 defensemen)

 

Impact players

 

Here's five who stand out:

Goaltender Alex Schilling: Schilling was selected the Falcons’ MVP after going 12-11-6 while starting the team’s final 29 games last year. His goals-against average (2.39) was fourth in AHA play and he had three shutouts.

“It’s always comforting to have a goalie you have confidence in,” said Serratore, who has developed several of them. “It’s very unsettling when you don’t. You can have everything else but if you’ve got a leaky pipe, you’re in trouble.”

Defenseman Zach Mirageas: The senior co-captain plays big minutes every game, denting both the scoresheet (his 23 points were second on the team last season) and opponents. He’s an excellent skater who enjoys the physical side of the game.

Defenseman Jake Levin: The other senior co-captain will also throw the body, but his all-around game has developed nicely. Excellent in his own zone, he’s scored 13 points in each of the past two seasons. He and Alex Mehnert (12 points last season) form the Falcons’ shutdown pair.

Defenseman Brandon Koch: The sophomore was selected third-team all-AHA and made the conference’s all-rookie team as well after tallying 19 points in his rookie campaign. He led the Falcons with 76 shots on goal.

Forward Marshall Bowery: The speedy winger broke through last season. His 10 goals led the team and his 16 points were fourth. The senior will be an every-situation player with the upside of 25 or more points.

Zach Mirageas (left) had 23 points for the Falcons in the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season. Now a senior, the defenseman looks to produce.

Zach Mirageas (left) had 23 points for the Falcons in the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season. Now a senior, the defenseman looks to produce.

Taking the next step

 

A pair of sophomore forwards appears poised to break out after strong finishes to their first season.

Blake Bride: The Colorado native recorded five of his seven points in the final two months last season. Air Force was 3-0-1 when he scored a goal.

Willie Reim: Much like the others, he caught fire down the stretch. His 12 points included six goals, but he brings another element the Falcons need — size. The winger is 6-foot-3.

“The sophomores all look pretty good, they’re more ready this year,” Serratore said. “We need them to take a step and it looks like they have.”

Freshmen to watch

 

These four stand out because of their flair for offense, something the Falcons need more of to win.

Forward Brian Adams: He had a team-high 19 goals among his 37 points (in 43 games) for Wenatchee of the British Columbia Hockey League. He was also captain of the team.

Defenseman Sam Brennan: One of the North American Hockey League’s (NAHL) top-scoring defensemen (30 points in 49 games a year ago), he joins a crowded blue line.

Forward Thomas Daskas: A teammate of Brennan’s at Lone Star the past two seasons, he racked up 48 points in 2019-20, including 19 goals, in 53 games and had six game-winners. At 6-2, he also adds size to the lineup.

Forward Nate Horn: Another strong goal scorer as a junior player, Horn had 20 goals among his 46 points in 52 games for Minnesota of the NAHL a year ago.

How they’ll win

 

Air Force will win games when it gets good-to-great play from Schilling in net, and the entire team is on the same page defensively. Offense again appears as though it will be a challenge, at least initially, so the Falcons will have to very good at what they do best.

Key series

 

It seems unlikely that fans will have the opportunity to watch the Falcons in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but if they could there are two series that stand out. First, Air Force plays host to Sacred Heart on Dec. 18-19. The Pioneers finished second to American International College in the league standings last season and play a fast, physical style. Second, the Falcons’ biggest rival — Army West Point — rolls into Colorado Springs for a Jan. 15-16 series. The Black Knights and Falcons always play physically and emotionally charged series. Adding to this, both Sacred Heart and Army were excellent road teams last season.

The last word

 

“We have to go through a lot here — academics, military stuff. We have to have each others’ back. That translates to the ice. There’s never the tension in the locker room that you might see at other places.” – Senior co-captain Zach Mirageas

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