Words from Conor Witherspoon: UAH Hockey building for the future

The Chargers of Alabama Huntsville have had an eventful past month. Their program was cut and then subsequently given four days to raise 750 thousand dollars to keep it going for a year while looking for a new conference home following the 2020-2021 season. After raising well in advance of the needed sum, the Chargers are now lead by acting Head Coach Lance West. He has scoured the continent for more players to fill the gaps caused by multiple transfers and some recruits choosing to go elsewhere when the program was cut before being reinstated one week later. The team and its newly formed Advisory Board are laying down building blocks for a strong pitch to multiple conferences to find a permanent home following the 2020-2021 season.

That leads us to Conor Witherspoon, the Michigan native has had a wonderful junior hockey career culminating in two years being a key piece of the Shreveport Mudbugs in the North American Hockey League (NAHL). The playmaking forward finished his last season in the NAHL with 30 assists and five goals in 52 games.

Witherspoon is a 5’11” defensively sound forward from Metamora, Michigan. One thing to keep an eye on with his development is his propensity to be a leader. In his last two years playing for his Flint Powers Catholic High School side he was an alternate captain, and in his final year with the Mudbugs he earned the honor as well. For the Chargers and West to add to the long-term legacy of UAH Hockey and ensure its success in Division One Men’s College Hockey, he needs a program of leaders to build around. Witherspoon and many in this recruiting class fit that mold.

As to what he wants to study at UAH, Witherspoon is leaning towards a business program of study at UAH, but is not sure what he wants to major in just yet.

Below is some more from Witherspoon on why he chose UAH, and more:

Why Alabama Huntsville should be extended an NCHC invite: My thoughts

(Photo Credit:Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography)

With the news official that seven of the ten WCHA Men’s Hockey teams will leave to revive the CCHA (announcing the name was the news) after next season, three men’s teams need a home. I have a solution for one of them. Extend an invite to the Chargers to join effective in the 2021-2022 season. I have a few reasons why, part of which extends from seeing how passionate Head Coach Mike Corbett is about his program and how he has brought them back from the brink of being shut down once.

Define “National”

The National Collegiate Hockey Conference, as it stands, and especially if it loses the Red Hawks of Miami of Ohio, the Broncos of Western Michigan, or both, will cease to have a consistent presence outside of the upper midwest and Mountain West. The conference is, as it stands, the thing that binds together disparate institutions across multiple divisions with one goal, making Men’s Hockey their flagship sport. The Chargers share that goal. They would be another Division Two school with one Division One team in this conference.

Currently,the Chargers play in a shared complex with the Southern Professional League’s Huntsville Havoc, and before their final weekend this season have averaged 1483 fans (in a mere 12 games) in a building that seats 6600. While that is not ideal, the team is currently building a recruiting class from all around the world with less support arguably then last year’s new entrant to the NCAA Tournament, AIC. This year, AIC fresh off their tournament success and in the middle of another Atlantic Hockey Regular Season Championship season, has only averaged 706 fans in a building they share with the Springfield Thunderbirds of the American Hockey League. The arena capacity is 11294.

I say all of that to say this, do not use attendance as a reason to keep the Chargers out. Huntsville itself is a beautiful city within a short two hour drive of Nashville and even closer to other beautiful Tennessee cities like Chattanooga. If you want to grow college hockey as a sport, adding new men and women’s teams while helping the ones in it stay in it is a big deal. Also, when UND fans sell out Bridgestone Arena in October as the Fighting Hawks take on Penn State they will only be two hours north of Huntsville.

Chargers’ Head Coach Mike Corbett tried to schedule the Fighting Hawks around that time but had no luck. If accepted into the NCHC, in conference, a school with strong ties to NASA would play a school with a strong flight program at least twice a year.

Give him help

Immediately, Head Coach Mike Corbett would get a lot more donations to his program if he had to fund trips to NCHC schools, and would get a lot more eyeballs on his program. Right now Corbett holds what amounts to two full time jobs at most Division One Schools. He fundraises for his own program, a very rare thing for a Head Coach to do at this level, all while working on building a team and trying to get the Chargers to have a better future as a program. Having a national television deal’s money coming to the school, combined with a better streaming deal would be a big infusion into the coffers of the Chargers. The Chargers’ external media coverage (if you write for UAHHockey.com you are excluded from this) the past few years, other than when they were on the brink of losing their team, has been, to be frank, not good enough.

Our coverage of the Chargers in their efforts to upset UND this January has been the most extensive of any non local media/blog news source I have seen in the past few years. This program deserves a chance to show what it can do. If Corbett can keep a team afloat and produce an NHL goalie (Cam Talbot) while helping graduate several players onto pro hockey and pro careers in other wonderful endeavors. imagine what he could do for hockey in the south with even a bit of a fair playing field.

Who do we want this sport to be for?

If you truly support hockey being for all, as we do here, I would strongly ask that you consider supporting finding the Chargers a new home, in my mind ideally in the NCHC. Yes, there would be a talent gap immediately and for a few years the Chargers and teams on the lower end of the table would battle for positioning, that alone is not enough to disqualify them from being in the NCHC. Do I think the Chargers would be a better team than a lot of people would give them credit for and make teams sweat close games like they did to UND for a bit? Yes I do.

However, I truly believe that this sport is better when it brings in more people from around the world, supporting programs that grow the footprint of your game are something that the NCHC should strongly consider. In addition, as college sports do not have relegation we do not kick teams out of conferences for finishing last for a number of years and nor should we. If college sports are about the student athlete experience, having the NCHC play games in a building that has more seats than a few of its own barns do is something I would consider, along with giving student athletes more of a respite from the cold weather in the dead of winter.

I think Corbett and the Chargers have shown that through their fundraising efforts and willingness to go anywhere to play the game, that their fans would respond well to being a part of the most title-laden conference in Men’s College Hockey.They are outdrawing a team that was one win away from a Frozen Four last year as well. If a man doing two jobs with little external support bar his own donor base can keep a program afloat in a conference that does not provide anywhere near the exposure of the NCHC, imagine what his program could do with a level playing field.

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of college sports, especially under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape, please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about we write as a supporter of crowd-funded  journalism that can truly be free for all at this link: https://www.paypal.me/oliverfrancies your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell.

Supporters: We thank all of our readers and those who donate, especially Greg and Michelle Livingston.

UND sets the standard with second 5-2 win over Alabama Huntsville: Now What?

(Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee Violet Turtle Photography)

Coming in, we knew some things about the Chargers of Alabama-Huntsville that proved true. Like always, they have goalies with high compete levels that often times stand on their heads to keep their teams in games. Like Carmine Gurriero and Jordan Uhelski along with others before him, Mark Sinclair did just that, saving multiple grade a looks en route to giving up four goals on 37 shots faced. One of those goals was a highlight reel-between the legs maneuver from Sinclair’s junior hockey teammate at Chilliwack, Jordan Kawaguchi. When asked if he had seen that move from him before, he said “probably”.

What we did not expect from this team, especially one that had not the best faceoff statistics coming in was how it played in the dot tonight and chopped down one of UND’s biggest strengths to size. The Chargers finished plus four and plus six in the dot in eaach of the first two periods before finishing the night ahead of one of the best faceoff teams in the country 30-29.

As Chargers Coach Mike Corbett encouraged “read the box score the way its supposed to be read.” The man who not only is the reason for Huntsville having Division One Hockey, but also its chief fundraiser for its continued existence, noted how hard his team competed and how close they fought the number one team in the nation. For the Chargers they took away a lot from a weekend where they got swept 5-2 each night (one empty net goal per night). Josh Latta stepped up on the weekend with three points, as his line was arguably the best the Chargers had this weekend. Corbett was quite pleased to see Latta’s line find the scoresheet again.

Sinclair played outstanding continuing a streak of good play since Thanksgiving, and this team gained confidence it will need to make the WCHA Postseason as they jump right back into conference play this Thursday against Bemidji State at their rink, the Von Braun Center. Regardless of whichever team you may support, if you are able to, I would strongly urge you to email Coach Corbett at michael.corbett@uah.edu and ask how you can donate or help spread awareness of the program. Make no mistake, Huntsville is not the only program that needs help, but given the precarious position they and their counterparts in Alaska find themselves in, raising money is tough.

If we want NCAA Division One Men’s College Hockey, to grow beyond 60 Division One teams, and encourage more Women’s programs to play along with this expansion we need to expand the reach of the sport, that means supporting those programs that are in newer markets and urge schools around them to join through supporting them. Helping the Chargers and Coach Corbett fund raise is a huge part of that.

To put this in perspective for Fighting Hawks fans, this school has the Champions Club, the Alumni Foundation, and many other private donors who donate to this team yearly. They play in a 100 million dollar rink given by the Engelstads that quite frankly has more amenities than some professional rinks do and is more full on a percentage basis than more than a few NHL rinks.  The Chargers have an arena that seats about one-fifth of the Ralph, share it with an SPHL team and have one man, Corbett, lead a smaller staff and spend time fundraising. Email the man and see if you can help, not because this writer told you to, but because supporting the growth of college hockey should be a goal we all aspire to. We all want as many people to enjoy this sport as possible, and donating to the Chargers and other similar programs goes a long way towards that goal. 

For the Fighting Hawks, this weekend, one could argue, serves as a Rorschach test for what you think about where this team will be. An optimist could say that the team showed its depth and resiliency in its ability win games in different ways. Someone a bit more concerned could rightly point to how the lowest ranked team in the country got multiple odd-man rushes and good chances against a team that routinely dominates possession stats. The team looked a little better with Shane Pinto back from World Juniors, but not having Jacob Bernard-Docker on the back end yet hurt this team immensely.

Also, no matter your thoughts on the team, I think we can put Jordan Kawaguchi in the top end of the Hobey Baker Award conversation. That third goal of the night off a rebound was a sight to behold. To go between the legs from that close of an angle against his former teammate had to be a tough move to do in front of one, let alone over 11,000 people watching.

Also, Adam Scheel, UND’s netminder, played ok all weekend, however of the goals he has given up, he has shown a propensity to give up cross ice feed plays off the rush. In addition he seemed to be fighting the puck at times both nights. UND’s defense is so good at boxing out that long shifts leading to goals are hard to find for teams. Perhaps Nebraska Omaha may look for those quick outlets through the neutral zone to find cross-ice looks. The Mavericks are sure fast enough to do things like that, and the NCHC season is far from over.

Scheel did not have to make as many grade-a saves as Sinclair did, but one wonders what a team that can hang with the Fighting Hawks a bit better from a shots on net percentage wise will be able to put up against them. Also, next week keep an eye on the faceoff dot for the Fighting Hawks. They should win that battle easily but if the Mavericks can utilize their aggressive wingers to help on more 50-50 battles, those numbers could turn out similar to tonight’s final tally (30-29 Alabama Huntsville).

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of UND Athletics, and under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape, please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about UND Athletics as a supporter of independent, crowd funded journalism that can truly be free for all at this link: https://www.paypal.me/oliverfrancies your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell.

Supporters: We thank all of our readers and those who donate, especially Greg and Michelle Livingston.

UND Uses Strong Second to hang on against Alabama Huntsville: Now What?

(Photo Credit:Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography)

Last night at a nearly sold out Ralph Engelstad Arena, the Fighting Hawks’ Men’s Hockey team hung on through a close checking first period against the Chargers of Alabama Huntsville and were able to get their second half of the season started right with a 5-2 win.

Do not let the score fool you, this game was a lot closer than the final totals indicated. While the Fighting Hawks out shot the Chargers 36-15, they also were not able to solve the Chargers’ netminder, Mark Sinclair, early enough to put the game in a more comfortable position. The Fighting Hawks also had to play from behind early as Christian Rajic fired home a shot 18 seconds in to put UND in a position it has not been in a lot, trailing early.

The Fighting Hawks responded with two goals from Grant Mismash and Jordan Kawaguchi, and an empty net tally from Cole Smith for the final margin. Read on for some thoughts for each team on how to be a bit better tonight.

If you want UND to do better, read this section

The second period should be the benchmark for this team. The Fighting Hawks were a lot better at moving pucks around and not  letting the Chargers plug shooting lanes as much. For a comparison, in the first period, the visitors blocked eight shot attempts, in the second they only blocked two. That alone forced Sinclair to see more shots and in part because of how Huntsville defends, opened up more chances.

As Grant Mismash noted, since the Chargers were playing a man-to-man coverage when he shook loose from his defender and had open space. Therefore, he had a decently easy net front drive for one of his markers. If this team can work on getting more isolation-like looks, they should be able to drive the net more and make Sinclair’s life harder than it was last night.

In addition, Head Coach Brad Berry noted a rare needed improvement for the Fighting Hawks, they need to win more faceoffs. A team that routinely wins the large majority of its draws only won 33 of 60 total on the night. Players were getting kicked out and the Chargers’ ability to have their wingers come and help made a big difference.

UND should have enough to win on Saturday, but keep reading to see what the Chargers can do to make things more interesting than on Friday.

If you want the Chargers to do better, or know what UND needs to watch for, read this section. 

Well, when the Chargers get chances they have to convert more of them. They had a few breakaways that did not even result in a shot on net. In addition, when UND holds them in for a long period of time, they have to make the simple play and get the puck to the neutral zone. Their inability to do this directly lead to a goal on a long shift where Sinclair had his head down for a minute after. A Charger had a chance to clear it but did not put enough zip on the pass and it stayed in the zone. UND being the good team it is was able to bury the puck .

I will say this for the Chargers, this is a team not afraid of anyone, and they hung with the number one team in the country pretty much all night. They have some things to clean up, but woe unto teams taking them lightly because they have won one game, If the Chargers clean up their defensive zone a bit and tighten their box to force some more blocks who knows what we could see. Easier said than done of course, but this team played with no fear in front of the biggest crowd it will see all season. If Sinclair stands on his head as he did multiple times last night, UND will have to earn their win.

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of UND Athletics, and under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape, please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about UND Athletics as a supporter of independent, crowd funded journalism that can truly be free for all at this link: https://www.paypal.me/oliverfrancies your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell.

Supporters: We thank all of our readers and those who donate, especially Greg and Michelle Livingston.