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Sweetly, Alabama-Huntsville draws curtain on CHA

by Bob Snow
They won but three home games all season -- and just 12 overall -- and finished last in the now-dismantled four-team College Hockey America league. Their captain has one point in his 32 games this season. And as it stands right now for next season, they are the only team in the NCAA without a league to call home.

Programming Note: NHL Network-U.S. will broadcast the ECAC Hockey tournament Friday beginning at 4 p.m. ET when Cornell takes on Brown. At 7 p.m. ET, Union will meet St. Lawrence.

Regardless, the resilient Alabama-Huntsville Chargers are going to the 16-team NCAA Tournament two weekends from now thanks to two scintillating wins last weekend to win the CHA Tournament -- the final two games of CHA play -- and earn the automatic NCAA invite that goes to each tournament champion.

Next season, three of the league's other teams will play in other conferences -- Niagara University and Robert Morris University will join Atlantic Hockey, while Bemidji State will move to the WCHA. 

"When you finally get that chance to raise a trophy and win that last game, it's a great feeling," third-year coach Danton Cole told about Saturday's championship-game win. "The guys were pretty fired up. It's been a tough couple years for some of them. It was great to sit back and enjoy it through their emotions."

It's been a roller-coaster of emotions for Alabama-Huntsville these past two seasons. Rejected by the CCHA for admittance last summer as that league's 12th team after Nebraska-Omaha defected to the WCHA as its 12th team, Cole and company embarked on a major goal this past season that no other team would experience.  

"We're still looking for a home," Cole said. "That's our long-term and short-term goal, to get into a conference and continue to show our commitment. But we've put together a pretty good independent schedule (for next season), which hasn't been easy, but we've done it. Geographically, the CCHA is our best fit. We'll keep talking with them, but won't limit any options. To be the only independent team is a tough road to follow.

"This (win) hopefully keeps us in the conversation and lets us get out our story."

The Chargers' story now is in many conversations as their storybook ride takes them center-stage in the 2010 NCAA tournament.

One major conversation this weekend will be the bubble factor imposed by the Chargers, given that top-10 Bemidji State likely will receive an at-large bid, while Alabama-Huntsville now grabs a second slot in the 16-team tournament.  

Two teams in a four-team league getting tournament bids has been a quiet criticism among other signature teams and coaches.

Cole pulls no punches in responding to that smug diatribe.

"That's why there's a selection process," he said. "I'm unapologetic and not shy about saying we earned it. We won when we had to win. We're as deserving as anyone else. They play conference tournaments for a reason.

"There are people who think their team should be in the (NCAA Tournament). They have the right to think that way, but at the end of the day you have to work and you have to win at the right time. And that's what we did.

"If that's where everything is going, where we have to have this team and that team in and they have to make it every year, then there should be a super division with 16 teams, and the same 16 make the NCAA every year. That's what they should do; just kick everybody else to the curb. As it stands now, the tournament champions get in and then (10) at-large bids."

Late this Saturday, 42 of the 58 teams move to the curb as their seasons end.

Last weekend, A-H worked hard and won at the right time -- led by junior captain Ryan Burkholder and tournament MVP Cameron Talbot in goal. In Friday's semifinal, Talbot pitched a 1-0 shutout against Robert Morris, with junior Neil Ruffini's goal proving the game-winner. Saturday, Talbot completed his 72-save, two-game performance with a 3-2 overtime defeat of Niagara (which had defeated heavily favored Bemidji in the other semifinal). Freshman Keenan Desmet scored the last goal in CHA history 1:32 into overtime, sending Alabama-Huntsville into NCAA history.

"I've been around a lot of great leaders, like Scott Stevens and Troy Murray in my playing days," Cole said of Burkholder. "Burkie is a tremendous young man. All the guys look up to him. He'll be our captain next year. It's a testament to his ability with so few points. 

"And Cam's three-year progression has been outstanding. He's been a rock back there. Coaches sleep better when they have a kid like that that can make big saves in the big time. He did that this weekend. He's a got a good shot at playing at a higher level."

Cole will sleep less over the next 10 days, and his Chargers will be playing at a significantly higher level for a second time in program history. A-H lost a first-round heartbreaker Notre Dame in 2007, 3-2 in double overtime.

They will be the 16th seed in the pairings to be announced Sunday, and are a lock to meet either No. 1 Denver or No. 2 Miami in the first round of the West or Midwest regional.

"It will be interesting," Cole said. "We'll be a little outmatched against either Denver or Miami. I do think there are certain things ... when you get enough guys together guys can overcome talent deficits. We'll rely on Cam and keep the game as tight as possible for as long as possible to give us a chance to win. If we execute and get a couple of bounces, anything can happen."

Consider the biggest upset in NCAA postseason play, when Holy Cross beat mighty Minnesota, 4-3 in overtime in the first round of the 2006 tournament. Alabama-Huntsville can assume that distinction with a win next weekend. 

"The point of getting in isn't to get a cap and wear it around that you got in," Cole said. "The point is to go on and win that next game. That's been our focus all year. It will be pretty long odds, but that's why they keep score. I think our guys will go out and do themselves proud."

Marathon in Schenectady breaks NCAA record -- Last Friday at Messa Rink in upstate New York, Union and Quinnipiac met in Game 1 of their best-of-three ECAC quarterfinal series. They only needed 5 hours and 57 minutes -- or 150 minutes, 22 seconds of game time -- to decide the winner.

A few ticks into the fifth overtime, the epic affair became the longest game in NCAA history, eclipsing the previous record set in a game between Union and Yale on March 4, 2006; the Bulldogs won that 141:35 marathon, 3-2.

Quinnipiac's Greg Holt will be able to tell his grandchildren about his place in history when he scored at 10:22 of the fifth overtime, which came very early Saturday morning -- 1:03 a.m. ET.

The Dutchmen came back to take Games 2 and 3 Saturday and Sunday, earning a date this weekend in the ECAC semifinal against St. Lawrence University.

On Campus Clips -- Leading the nation in scoring is Maine's Gustav Nyquist with 18-41-59; his 41 assists also lead in that category. Sacred Heart's Nick Johnson is the nation's leader in goals with 27. Quinnipiac's Brandon Wong leads in power-play goals with 14. Boston University's David Warsofsky's 4 shorthanded goals head that category. In goal, Miami's Cody Reichard leads in goals-against average with 1.64. Mark Cheverie at Denver heads the nation in save percentage at .937, in shutouts with six and in total wins at 24. ... The contract of Ohio State coach John Markell will not be renewed, Gene Smith, Ohio State associate vice president/director of athletics, announced Tuesday. Markell coached the Buckeyes the last 15 full seasons, beginning his tenure as the interim coach in 1995. ... Michigan's NCAA-best 19 consecutive tournament appearances is on the line this weekend. To continue that historic streak, the Wolverines must win the CCHA Tournament.

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