It’s not uncommon for college hockey players to take a giant leap from their freshman to sophomore seasons, and that is particularly acute at Air Force Academy, where the demands placed on incoming players and the adjustments needed to navigate Academy life are substantial. Taking into account those transitions, as well as the physical nature of college hockey, where players face physically mature men as old as 25, and it’s no surprise players’ improvement becomes more tangible.
The Falcons saw several sophomores make giant strides in their games last season, and the group as a whole contributed heavily to one of the best seasons in program history. Here is a closer look at those seven who now are juniors and what we can expect from them. Players are listed in alphabetical order.
Given the opportunity to play bigger minutes, Bailey responded, hiking his point total from three to 16 and scoring the first five goals of his Air Force career, including two game-winners. All of that came on just 44 shots. He scored on 11.4 percent of them, the best rate by far among Falcons defensemen. His plus-9 was third among blue liners behind Phil Boje and Kyle Mackey. He gained the trust of the coaching staff and played in all but three games after just 11 his freshman season. His emergence along with that of Matt Koch is particularly important given there will be just three upperclassmen on the blue line next season. The scoring spigot was turned on and the arrow is pointing up for both Bailey and Koch.
Christopoulos is the front-runner to start in goal for the Falcons after Shane Starrett signed with the Edmonton Oilers organization this past spring. Christopoulos played less as a sophomore than he did as a freshman but his numbers were better. His save percentage rose from .870 to .901, and his goals-against average dropped by more than half a goal, from 3.34 to 2.79. His only poor outing was a five-goal outburst at Arizona State. Aside from giving up four goals in an overtime loss to national champion Denver, he didn’t allow more than three goals in any other game (and three only happened one time). Conversely, the Falcons only scored 17 goals in his eight appearances. Lauded by teammates for his positive attitude and work ethic, he is ready for the next step in his career, and there is no way a lineup this deep won’t provide more offensive support.
Feno is a prototypical forward in the Falcons’ machine. He can skate, he can score, he’s tenacious, he’s excellent in the circle and he’s a buzz saw on defense. Like Bailey, he took a big step up as a sophomore, growing his point total from 12 to 25 and his goals from four to seven. He has been a plus player in each of his first two seasons, which is impressive given the number of defensive zone starts he receives. He also became more adept at creating chances for himself and others; his shots increased from 57 to 70 and he buried 10 percent of them, which was about the team average. He is a consistent point producer, not going more than two games without a point until the final month of the season. He also won 53 percent of the 634 face-offs he took (third most on the team). In short, Feno is the type of well-rounded player who thrives at AFA.
Another consistent point producer, Giesler nearly hit 30 (triple his freshman total) and he did not go more than two games without at least a point until the final three games of the season. A true two-way forward, his 11 goals tied for second on the team, and his five power-play goals and plus-19 led the Falcons. He tended to score his goals in bunches – three at RIT in February, two at Colorado College in November, two in a series at Western Michigan and two in a series against Sacred Heart. He’s also highly accurate, scoring on 14.9 percent of his shots – only senior Jordan Himley and sophomore Brady Tomlak were more accurate. Giesler doesn’t draw the attention that some of his peers do, but his production and defensive prowess make him one of the more underrated Falcons.
Haak, who was very good as a freshman, was a revelation centering Himley, and the two were neck and neck for the team scoring lead most of the season. Haak finished with 33 points, up from 19 as a freshman, and 14 goals (second on the team and up from 9). He’s accurate (13.5 percent) and defensively responsible (plus-13). His vision and high hockey IQ no doubt played a role in Himley having the season he had. He is another tone-setter, too. He scored the first goal three times and the winner three times. He also had three power-play goals and a short-hander. If that wasn’t enough, he won 55.5 percent of his face-offs, and he took 645 of them, just nine fewer than team leader Tyler Ledford. One could make a case for him being the Falcons’ top player in the NCAA Tournament, when he had three points, including this third two-goal game of the season. There aren’t many holes in his game and he’s consistently in position to contribute.
Koch’s season mirrored Bailey’s in many ways – both played far more as sophomores and both scored their first five collegiate goals. Interestingly enough, none of Koch’s came at even strength – two on the power play, two shorthanded and one into an empty net. His ability to find shooting lanes stood out, and he also was well into plus territory (plus-8), a testament to his improved defensive play, particularly in the second half. Given his scoring pedigree in junior, it would not be a surprise to see his point total increase again (he went from 5 to 18). His 8.6 percent shooting accuracy was second only to Bailey among defensemen, and his 57 blocked shots were third on the team.
The winger battled concussion effects on two separate occasions and missed eight games because of them. Still, he exceeded his freshman year production by a point (19 to 18) but scored six fewer goals (4, down from 10). He sees a lot of penalty-kill time and was a trusted defender. The injuries derailed a great start (10 points in 10 games) and a potentially massive points increase. He didn’t seem to regain his rhythm until the stretch run, when he had a five-game point streak in February.
Three of the Falcons’ top five and four of the top eight returning scorers are juniors, and all four of them play well-rounded games. Add in a pair of emerging defensemen with excellent offensive instincts and the probable starting goalie, then couple it with an eight-person senior class and you get an idea why this would appear to be the year for the Falcons to make hay. Regardless of how this season goes down, this group of seven will ensure Air Force is back in the mix next season as well.
Go inside the numbers on Air Force’s sophomores here
Follow @AFAFlightPath on Twitter to get updates on Air Force hockey