Last season was a time of high expectations for the Tennessee hockey program. After knocking off top-ranked teams such as Kennesaw State, Georgia, Middle Tennessee State University, Texas and Georgia Tech, the Ice Vols felt destined for another ACHA National Tournament berth. Unfortunately a poor showing at the Gulf Coast Clash derailed those hopes, and Tennessee was denied a tournament appearance despite finishing fifth in the toughest region in the country, the ACHA Northern Region.
This season, the Vols are back in a big way, back in the Southern Region and back in the national tournament picture. However, this hungry group of Vols wants to make a run not just at a tournament berth but at the national title itself. Team officials used the program’s growth and exposure last season to bring in perhaps the best recruiting class in the 40-year history of the Ice Vols.
Heading the incoming group is Chris Murphy, a freshman from Arlington, Mass. Murphy played last season for the Junior A Walpole Stars of the Eastern Junior Hockey League and was on several NCAA signing watch lists prior to choosing the Vols. In 2004, Murphy was named to the USA Hockey U17 National Selects team.
Also joining the Ice Vols is Kevin Jones, a former player in Darren Turcotte’s Southern Ice Lightning Program. After leaving Southern Ice, Jones played for both the Cincinnati Cyclones Junior B and Traverse City Stars Junior A programs.
Tennessee also welcomed local product Tommy Morgan to the team. Originally from Loveland, Colo., Morgan captained the Knoxville Jr. Ice Bears’ Tier-II squad that claimed the Southeastern Regional Championship last season.
Other newcomers of note are Dan Folan, a standout in Boston high school circles; Dan Jasiak, who played at the prestigious Philips Exeter Academy program; Amin Elaguizy, a transfer from Robert Morris; and Kelsey McLean, a goalie from the Canadian Junior B Golden Horseshoe League.
This outstanding crop of rookie collegians joins an already talented stable of returning players, led by the lone senior on the roster, Jon Benner. Benner has averaged a goal a game over his career at Tennessee and now stands at 10th on the team’s all-time scoring list with 100 points.
Also back is ACHA All-America nominee Joe Williams, who broke the team’s freshman scoring record last year with 56 points. Super sophomores Chris Neilson and Mike McGinnis also return, as do Scott Holtzman and Tim Flynn, the team’s leading scorers in 2005 and 2004, respectfully.
Anchoring the Vols’ defense are stalwart juniors Ryan Halko and Brad Holt, as well as Chris Bouchard, the team’s leading scorer from the blue line, and bruising Jeremiah Phelps. Both Bouchard and Phelps have Junior A experience.
The team leader in wins last year, Mark McHugh is back in net for the Ice Vols, along with B.J. Keyes, who developed and came on strong last spring, shutting out Penn State-Altoona and notching wins against Georgia and MTSU. Along with transfer Kelsey McLean, they comprise arguably the best triumvirate of ACHA goalies in the nation.
Behind the bench is head coach Steve Durrigan, a nominee for ACHA Coach of the Year in 2005-06, along with assistants Mike Lowrey and Aaron Barnes. After last season’s success, Durrigan now holds the best record of any first-year coach in Tennessee hockey history.
Added to the coaching roster this season is Dean Anderson, a former No.1 draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs and an All-American goaltender at Wisconsin. Anderson still holds three WCHA records from his time with the Badgers.
The schedule provides some great match-ups, including SEC bouts with Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and South Carolina, plus the new program at Alabama. Tennessee will also play a home-and-home series with preseason ACHA Division III favorite Kennesaw State, including a game in Atlanta at the 18,000-seat Philips Arena, home of the Atlanta Thrashers.
For the first time, Tennessee will face a defending national champion when they travel to Dayton and play the Wright State Raiders in the 9,000-seat Nutter Center, home of the ECHL’s Dayton Bombers. The Ice Vols are hoping the 2006-07 season will culminate at the ACHA National Championship in Fort Wayne, Ind.