(Photo: Tyler Paley/WCSN)
Two years removed from an ACHA national title, the Arizona State University Sun Devils will play their inaugural game as an NCAA hockey team tonight at Gila River Arena, squaring off against in-state rival, the University of Arizona.
Although tonight’s game will be recognized as an ACHA match-up, the stage of Gila River Arena will play a role in preparing this team for the jump to larger venues and heightened competition.
Arizona State comes into the game having won the last ten match-ups against the University of Arizona; in addition, head coach Greg Powers has orchestrated 39 Cactus Cup wins, having dropped just one in February 2014.
Arizona has won its first two games out of the gate, netting an average of two goals per game in that span.
Captain Liam Norris enters the game with sky-high expectations.
“Liam is a big cog for us,” Powers said. “25-year-old centers at the NCAA level don’t just grow on trees, so his maturity and his passion for the program will help us this season. Liam and I have been here the longest of anyone, so I am glad he decided to come back for this first year in the NCAA for us.”
Fresh off of a season in which he finished with 50 total points in 36 ACHA games, Powers elected to name him one of the first captains in the history of the program.
Senior captain Jordan Young will also be center stage, coming into the game having contributed 11 points in 26 games for Arizona State last year.
“Liam Norris has been here longer than any other coach and player besides myself and has helped build our program,” Powers said. “Jordan Young is right behind Liam in tenure and has also helped build this program to where it is today.”
While most of this team has never played for an NCAA Division I program, Powers will come into his first season with eight players who have, making the jump all the more manageable.
For Arizona, the key will be going to John Hogan and Roy Grandov early, both players having scored two goals through two games.
On the flip side, slowing these two down will be key for the Devils in their attempt at limiting the Wildcat’s offensive attack. The Wildcats have averaged 42 shots on goal per game, neutralizing those attempts will be the first test of the season for this Arizona State team.
The storyline throughout is primed to be focused on not only this team’s captain’s and their adjustments to leading a flagship Division I program, but the growth of key players like Eric Rivard, Sean Murphy, Ryan Belonger and Michael Cummings and their transitions to the NCAA.
Murphy led the team in goals last season, netting 22.
“The speed will be the biggest adjustment,” Powers said. “The time and space the guys who were with us last year are used to having won’t be there. We are really focusing on the limited time we have with them on the ice right now on live game situations and scrimmages.”
Tonight’s match-up will mark the first step in what will be a gradual climb into being a competitive NCAA program.
The fact that it will come against the University of Arizona couldn’t be a more fitting introduction.
“You have to prepare the same way if you are building a foundation, it doesn’t matter who you are playing against,” Powers said.