Arizona Rubber

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Arizona State prepping to face off 2023-24 ACHA Division 1 season


Arizona State University’s Division 1 men’s American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) team faced off the 2022-23 season with high hopes.

Instead, a poorer than expected second-half showing left the Sun Devils on the outside looking in when selection for the national championship tournament in suburban Boston came around.

The 2023-24 ACHA season has now began, and while ASU’s newest class of recruits is starting to generate some early excitement of its own, the Sun Devils are hoping to end this season on a more lofty note.

“We had a senior-heavy group last season,” Arizona State head coach Austin Cline said. “We started off 6-0 and were ranked No. 2 in the nation. But the second half of the season we caught the injury bug and missed the cut for nationals by one spot.

“I have 17 freshmen and five transfers this year and it’s a group of very hungry guys. They’re starting to gel. It looks good for the future.”

ASU faced off the new season with a 4-2 win over intrastate rival University of Arizona in the opener of the teams’ marathon seven-game Cactus Cup series on Sept. 22, then swept a two-game series against host San Diego State University’s fledgling M1 team Sept. 29-30 before splitting a two-game home ice series against the University of Nevada-Las Vegas Oct. 5-6 in Tempe.

Cline has to be pleased with his team’s 4-1 start but realizes there’s still a lot of hockey yet to be played before the 2024 ACHA national championship event faces off March 7-17 in St. Louis.

Cactus Cup

Arizona doubled up the host Wildcats in their first meeting of this season as forward Ryan Robinson collected two goals and one assist, forward Tyler Kiley-Ram added one goal and two assists and forward Conner Tilmon contributed a goal and assist in support of goaltender Chase Hamm’s 27 saves on 29 shots.

Forwards Jesse Lowell and Trystan Swiger each scored one goal for U of A.

Both teams will see each other in Western Collegiate Hockey League (WCHL) play, plus non-conference match-ups to complete the Cactus Cup schedule.

The teams next face off Nov. 10-11 in Tempe, followed by games Dec. 8-9 and Feb. 15-17 in Tucson.

As far as intrastate rivalries go, ASU’s ACHA M1 team will face Grand Canyon University five times on the season … Jan. 3-6 in Phoenix and Jan. 12-13 and Feb. 1 in Tempe.

GCU will play U of A’s ACHA M1 team four times in league play: Oct. 20-21 in Tucson and Feb. 2-3 in Phoenix.

The WCHL returns with 10 teams this season. The five teams in the West Division include ASU, Arizona, Grand Canyon, University of Utah and UNLV. The East Division includes the University of Colorado, Colorado State, University of Central Oklahoma, University of Oklahoma and Missouri State.

Devil of a time

The Sun Devils’ visit to the Kroc Center Ice Arena in San Diego might have seemed like a mismatch, but it wasn’t necessarily. Arizona State finished 16-16-4 last season while San Diego State University ended its maiden season at the Division 1 level with a 1-20-1 record. The Sun Devils easily swept the two games between the teams by scores of 12-2 and 8-3.

But the goaltending and overall defense has undergone a major upgrade to face off SDSU’s second ACHA Division 1 season and the Sun Devils got a taste of that.

ASU won the series opener by a score of 6-2 that was close until the final minutes while escaping with a 1-0 win in the series finale.

Forward Matthew Gross led the Sun Devils offensively with three goals and one assist, including a natural hat trick, in the series opener while defenseman Lucas Lundy had two points on a goal and assist. Forward Jon Murphy scored one goal while forward Carter Newlin dished out two assists. Cody Creasy made 18 saves on 20 shots to pick up the goaltending victory.

The Aztecs drew first blood in the game on forward Kolby Hennessy’s second goal of the season before ASU took a 2-1 lead on a pair of goals by Gross to end the first period.

SDSU managed to shrug that off with Hennessy’s game-tying goal to start the second period but Gross scored his hat trick goal to push the Arizona visitors ahead, 3-2, through two periods.

Gross picked up his fourth point of the night midway through the third period with the primary assist on Lundy’s first tally of the season to double the score to 4-2. The Aztecs remained within striking distance, however, until ASU’s Murphy and forward Trevor Kennedy potted two late goals – at 18:09 and 19:44 – to hand the Sun Devils a four-goal non-conference victory.

Arizona State enjoyed a wide territorial advantage to face off the second game in the weekend series but SDSU netminder Garrett Fuller allowed only one puck to cross the line while making 32 saves on 33 ASU shots.

Tilmon scored what proved to be the game-winner at 3:11 of the second period, assisted by Robinson and Kiley-Ram.

The Sun Devils out-shot the Aztecs 33-15 with goaltender Anthony Bonaldi recording a 15-save shutout.

“It was a great hockey game for 50 minutes until we kind of lost our structure,” SDSU head coach Phil Bateman said. “You can’t do that against a good team like that. We’ve bridged the gap but we need to learn to finish.”

Arizona State faced off WCRL play with a series split against UNLV. The Sun Devils posted a 5-3 win in the series opener while UNLV came back to chill ASU, 3-2, in the second game.

The Sun Devils received goals from five players in their series opening win: Tilmon, Kennedy, Newlin and forwards Caden Butler and Hunter Friesen. Butler and Newlin also added assists for two points. Hamm stopped 37 of 40 shots to post the win between the pipes.

Forward Wyatt Cole scored twice for UNLV while defenseman Rob McCollum chipped in with one goal.

The Skatin’ Rebels turned the tables on their hosts in the rematch with a 3-2 victory as defenseman Jake Berry and forwards Luke Burke and Mason Kelly each scored goals and goaltender Vince Benedetto slammed the door with 20 saves on 22 shots.

Kiley-Ram collected a goal and assist, Butler scored once while Hamm made 35 saves in the setback for Arizona State.

The teams rematch Jan. 19-20 in Nevada.

Statistical leaders through ASU’s opening five games included Kiley-Ram with seven points (two goals, five assists) and Gross (three goals, two assists), Tilmon (three goals, two assists) and Robinson (two goals, three assists) each with five points. Hamm is 2-1 with a 2.67 GAA and 0.925 save percentage in three games while Creasy and Bonaldi each had one win.

Western exposure

The West Coast Hockey Conference (WCHC) returns this season with its three divisional alignment braced by 15 teams. The WCHC playoff champion is an automatic qualifier to the ACHA M2 West Regional tournament.

The conference is topped by its Tier 1 cadre of six teams: Grand Canyon University Antelopes, ASU Sun Devils, Northern Arizona University IceJacks, UCLA Bruins, Loyola Marymount University Lions and CSU Northridge Matadors.

GCU won last year’s Tier 1 championship, defeating UCLA, while Northridge, last season’s Tier 2 champion, receives promotion to Tier 1. In return, Long Beach State University moves down to Tier 2 this season.

The Tier 2 includes two sub-divisions: Tier 2 South (five teams) and Tier 2 North (four teams).

Tier 2 South includes CSU Fullerton Titans, Long Beach State, Cal Lutheran University Kingsmen, UC Santa Barbara Gauchos and UC Irvine Anteaters.

Tier 2 North includes Santa Clara University Broncos, UC Davis Aggies, Fresno State University Bulldogs and UC Santa Barbara Banana Slugs.

Fresno State has been added this season to the WCHC membership while Santa Rosa Junior College and Chapman University both experienced low turnouts and not fielding teams this season.

“It should be a great season,” LMU general manager Tyler Goeckner-Zoeller said. “Fullerton and Santa Barbara are looking like favorites to win Tier 2 this year. Tier 1 is wide open as usual. All teams should be strong.”

Early season results have favored Grand Canyon University with a 4-1 start in Tier 1 while Santa Clara is off to a 3-0 start in Tier 2 North. Both Fullerton and Long Beach State have each posted one win to tie for the early lead in Tier 2 South.

Several teams have yet to play their first games, so changes in the standings are inevitable.

The Pac-8 conference includes nine teams this season, including four California schools: Cal-Berkeley, University of Southern California, San Jose State and UC San Diego, Rounding out membership for the 2023-24 season are the University of Washington, Western Washington University, Utah, Washington State and Eastern Washington University.

Washington is off to a 4-0-0 start while Cal-Berkeley is 3-0-1.

Statistical leaders for the Cal Golden Bears include Brendan Baker and Michael Shum with six points each on four goals and two assists and Tyson Storr (three goals, two assists) and Lukas Balen (two goals, three assists) with five points each.

Goaltender Yusuf Akbas had whittled together a 3-0-1 record with one shutout, 1.99 GAA and a .855 save percentage in four games.

Photo/Phillip Brents

— Phillip Brents

(October 16, 2023)

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