The 2014-15 season has been a coming of age for the University of Alabama in Huntsville Chargers. While it’s been repeated over and over about the trials and tribulations that the program has faced over the years, the hard work of the athletic department, coaching staff and most importantly, the players, has finally come to fruition. In only their second year as part of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA), the Chargers have qualified for the playoffs. Of the 10 teams in the conference, only the top eight qualify for the playoffs. Even with Alaska-Fairbanks not being eligible this year, UAH qualified as the seventh seed.
“That’s the great part about this is that we were in no matter what,” said head coach Mike Corbett. “Whether Alaska was in or not, that’s something that we wanted to be able to do. I think where we’re at, this time last year, we’ve made significant strides and answered a lot of questions from people about the direction of our program. That’s ultimately what we wanted to do. The kids did a good job of answering those questions. They came out every day and put the effort forward that we asked of them. When you do that, you’re going to have some success.”
It’s been a long time coming for the upperclassman at UAH. Their hard work and sacrifices have paid off. For junior defenseman Frank Misuraca, it’s something for them to be proud of.
“It means a lot because it’s nice to finally have some success,” said Misuraca, who hails from Clinton Township, Michigan. “It’s fun to have something to be proud of. Last year, and the year before, we were just playing our game and trying to stay in games. Now, we’re playing to win and we expect to win. We expect a lot out of ourselves and each other. Every year, it’s going to be our goal to make the playoffs and go as far as we can in it.”
Misuraca, who played in all 36 games for the Chargers this season, was a beacon on the blue line. Not only did he put up 12 points (6G-6A), he also faced some of the toughest competition night in and night out. Along with his stellar play, he was also responsible in regards to his play as he only took six penalties all season.
“He’s probably one of our MVPs besides Carmine (Guerreiro),” said Corbett on Misuraca. “He’s done a really good job solidifying our blue line and giving us a top four defenseman in the WCHA that we can count on on a nightly basis. Not only offensively by scoring some timely goals, but he’s also a guy who’s playing with Richard Buri right now and they’re our top two defensive defensemen as far as playing against the other team’s top line.”
Throughout his tenure at Alabama-Huntsville, Corbett has worked with the players to focus on minor fixes to improve their game. Misuraca credits that as a key to the team’s success.
“Every day at practice, he preaches to us to work on the little things,” said Misuraca on Corbett. “We’re just focusing on the small things that we can do to get better, not so much score a goal or win the game or individual things. We call it ‘the process.’ He stresses trying to possess the puck more because it helps us have a better change to win games. ”
While the Chargers will still continue to improve, going from 2-35-1 to 8-24-4 is a major improvement in the competitive college hockey world. The WCHA currently has three teams in the top 15 nationally in college hockey in Minnesota State (2), Michigan Tech (5) and Bowling Green (12). For the first round of the WCHA playoffs, the Chargers will face off against the Michigan Tech Huskies. UAH faced the Huskies in two separate series this season. They were two very different series. The first series, in late November, saw the Chargers lose 4-2 and 5-2 to Huskies. It was the second series in late January, where UAH lost 5-0 and 11-1 that opened their eyes. For Coach Corbett, the key to being competitive with Michigan Tech is simple.
“I think we need to execute, not change who we are and what we do,” said Corbett. “We just need to come in there with a strong mental mindset. Our fuel is 16-1. It was 16-1 the last time we went up there. We’re going to use that. I think the only reason the scores were what they were is because our guys didn’t execute. We didn’t manage the puck very well. You have to manage the puck well against a team like Michigan Tech because they have such good offensive depth. We’re confident in our defensive ability and our goaltending. We have to wait for opportunities and be competitively patient. If we do that, I think we’re going to give ourselves a chance to win.”
The players certainly plan on the outcome being different this time around. They’re motivated and hungry.
“I think we just need to focus on ourselves and do what we need to do and work on our consistency, said Misuraca. “The second series wasn’t the team that we know we are. We know we can a lot better and we’re going into Michigan Tech with a clean slate. It’s always fun being the underdog, so we’re going to do our best to knock them off.”
No matter the outcome of this weekend’s best of three series, the Chargers will know that they improved upon last year’s performance and made it to the playoffs. Is it it enough? Not at all. The program has big goals for the future.
Learning from the past to prepare for the future
In just watching this season’s Chargers, there has been a major difference not only in their play, but in their confidence level. Coach Corbett wants the players to always be hungry for more.
“No matter what success we’ve had, and it’s been good success based on the past precedent, they have to understand that we don’t want middle managers, we wants CEOs,” said Corbett. “To be a CEO, you have to go to work every day and continue to improve and make our program better. We don’t want guys that settle. That’s what great about sports, there’s always more. There’s always another championship, another win. That’s the kind of people we want in this program because of how quickly you can get knocked off the pedestal.”
UAH is focused on the weekend ahead, but especially for a college program, it’s what will come next and how to replace leaving upperclassmen and get new players ice time. With playing so many underclassmen throughout the season. The future should only mean more success.
“A lot of our younger guys are very skilled with a lot of potential,” said Misuraca. “Us older guys just have to show them that every day you have to come to the rink and work hard. No matter how things go, you just have to keep at it. We’re very excited about the future. Obviously we’re focusing on what we have to do right now and we don’t want any opportunities to fly by. We have a great core group of guys that make the future exciting.”
When it comes to playing at UAH, the athlete makes the choice to come there. Of course, there are school in the northeast and midwest that have rich tradition and history, but so does Alabama-Huntsville. As recently as 2010, the Chargers were the College Hockey America (CHA) tournament champions. They were also the CHA conference champions in 2001 and 2003. In 1996 and 1998, they won NCAA DII championships. It may be a couple of years away before the aspirations of conference and national championship can be reached, but the successful rebuild is happening in Huntsville.
“I think we’re still at the point, going into my second recruiting class, that we need to get kids that want to be here and are up to the challenge of what it takes to be here,” said Corbett. “The kids have to compete and we have to operate our talent so that we’re not fighting with under two goals a game. They need to have the ability to make plays and get to the dirty areas like in front of the net and bat one in when the times comes.”
Getting players to come to UAH is about being part of something special. It’s been a great learning experience so far for Misuraca. When you face the challenges that the program has over the past few years, you learn to apply that to how you live your life.
“I think for me, my first two years, I just wanted to be in the line up every night,” said Misuraca. “Especially because we were struggling, it’s really hard to stick to it. Personally, I try to keep the mindset that it doesn’t matter what happens on the ice or during a game, you try to do your best. I think it’s helped me. This year, it’s been great and it’s been good get rewarded with some wins because of your hard work.”
As it’s been seen so many times in all levels of sports, anything can happen. If UAH can pull off the upset over Michigan Tech this weekend, the reward for the Chargers will be sweeter than just another victory.