Hockey team gears up for national tournament

Carolyn Drummond

Flashes to face No. 5 Oklahoma in their third consecutive trip to ACHA playoffs

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The Kent State hockey team is feeling its own kind of March madness as it prepares for the American Collegiate Hockey Association Division I National Tournament, which begins this weekend.

“That’s all I’m thinking about this week,” senior forward Chris Hourigan said.

The No. 12 Flashes will face the No. 5 Oklahoma Sooners in the first round of the tournament at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at Gilmour Academy Ice Arena in Gates Mills, just outside of Cleveland.

“It’s playoff hockey,” junior defenseman Kye Budziszewski said. “Everybody is sacrificing everything.”

That dedication has been on display during the final weeks of the regular season. Kent State beat Duquesne 4-3 last weekend. Prior to that, the team managed overtime and shootout wins at No. 10 Ohio.

“If we play 60 minutes of hockey the way we played against (Ohio), that gives us a legitimate chance against every team in the tournament,” Kent State coach Jarret Whidden said.

The ACHA is made up of more than 50 teams from across the country, and the top 16 qualify for nationals.

This week Whidden said he ran practice as usual. While the players have continued to work on problem areas, like back-checking, they also have to focus on what Oklahoma will bring to the ice.

“Our big challenge is to keep up with their speed for 60 minutes,” Whidden said.

While Oklahoma plays a fast game, so does Kent State. Unlike most teams, the Flashes play an offensive style of hockey. The team has scored 179 goals in 37 games, an average of 4.8 per game.

“We’ve got to force our game upon them,” senior forward Eddie Martin said. “You won’t see anything like our style at nationals.”

In addition to scoring, a key element in team success is junior goalie Ryan Gregory.

“He’s the backbone of our team,” Hourigan said. “When he’s on, we can be unstoppable.”

Gregory, recently selected as an ACHA All-Star, was an alternate for the World University Games in China last month.

“There wasn’t a coach we played against that didn’t say he should’ve been at the World University Games,” Whidden said. “He’s the best goalie in the league.”

Gregory and the rest of the team have reason to feel comfortable at Gilmour Academy. The Flashes have played at the arena before, and several players played there in high school.

The 45-minute drive from Kent to Gates Mills might also bring a strong Kent State crowd. The team hopes fans make the trip to support them.

“It pumps us up and really gets us going,” Budziszewski said. “You’re always trying to prove something in front of your fans.”

Not only is the rink familiar territory, but the national tournament is becoming a habit for Kent State. This is the team’s third consecutive appearance and the sixth this decade.

“The older guys, the juniors and seniors, have really done some hard work to make a name for this program,” senior forward Stu Smith said.

Whidden has coached those players to nationals in each of his three seasons.

Smith said Whidden’s positive attitude and confidence in the team have helped the Flashes get into postseason play consistently.

“He expects us to be a national tournament team,” Smith said.

This year the Flashes hope to move past their previous record by making it to the quarterfinal round. With 12 experienced seniors, one All-Star goalie and a solid remaining roster, the team says it feels confident in this weekend’s matchup.

“You have to come every night, every shift, and play hard,” senior defenseman Nick Robillard said. “Playing that kind of hockey is what everyone waits for all year.”

Contact club sports reporter Carolyn Drummond at [email protected].