SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Alabama-Huntsville is looking for more than just the biggest win in school history when it plays top-seeded Miami (Ohio) in the first round of the NCAA men's hockey tournament on Saturday.
The Chargers, the lone Division I hockey team in the South, are looking to prove they belong on the ice with the northern powers. They enter the Midwest Regional in Fort Wayne with a 12-17-3 record, but earned an automatic NCAA tournament berth by winning the College Hockey America tournament.
They are hoping a strong performance in the NCAA tournament might help them land a new conference affiliation after the CHA disbands following the season. The conference's other three members have found leagues to play in, leaving Alabama-Huntsville as the only school without a conference.
"Hopefully it keeps us in the national conversation and if nothing else reminds people that we are an independent team and we're looking for a home," coach Danton Cole said.
The Chargers tried to join the Central Collegiate Hockey Association last summer, but were rejected. Team captain Ryan Burkholder said playing the CCHA champion RedHawks (27-7-7) on Saturday doesn't provide any extra motivation for the Chargers.
"We're playing Miami, not the entire CCHA, so we're focusing on Miami and how we can do our best and beat them," he said. "They could be in any other conference and we'd treat them the same way."
But players say they do feel as if they are trying to show that they are a team worth pursuing for conference affiliation.
"Obviously getting rejected by the CCHA and not having a certain future and being independent for next year it's definitely huge for us to get in the tournament and maybe prove that we belong with these teams and we're not outmatched by them," goalie Cameron Talbot said.
The Chargers are the only team left playing with a losing record, but it's the second NCAA tournament trip in three years for the school with about 7,400 students in northern Alabama. Three years ago, they earned a tournament berth, again with a losing record, and lost in double overtime to Notre Dame in the first round.
The school drew national attention last month when three professors were killed and two professors and a staff member were wounded in a shooting during a biology faculty meeting. Former professor Amy Bishop was charged with capital murder.
Spencer Harrison, a freshman aerospace major from Red Bud, Ill., and a fan of the hockey team, said it's exciting to see the team do so well. He said the shootings have helped bring the community together.
"Students are putting a little bit more effort into everything to make our school better," he said.
The Chargers also hope to emulate what fellow CHA member Bemidji State did last year when it became the first 16 seed to advance to the semifinals by beating top-seeded Notre Dame and Cornell. Bemidji State is headed to the powerful Western Collegiate Hockey Association next season.
Cole said he's telling his team to just keep working and things will work out.
"Situations can always change," the coach said. "At some point we'll be a good fit for somebody. We want to make sure when that opportunity comes we're ready to jump in and be a valuable member."