When Andrew Buchanan was a freshman at The Citadel four years ago, hockey night in Charleston had a special meaning for the knob from Raleigh.
Wednesday night meant practice for The Citadel's club hockey team — and a rare chance for a freshman to escape the military school's campus.
"I would look forward to Wednesdays the most," Buchanan recalled after a practice at The Carolina Ice Palace this week. "At The Citadel, you don't have leave the first semester of your knob year. So having that practice every Wednesday, to be able to come out and play hockey and then go to Chick-fil-A and get something to eat, we loved that."
A chicken sandwich is no longer the highlight of Citadel hockey, which this year has turned in one of the best seasons in program history.
With former South Carolina Stingrays great Ed Courtenay as coach, the Bulldogs are 16-5 as they head to the Blue Ridge Hockey Conference tournament this weekend in Chesapeake, Va.
Seeded No. 2 in the Atlantic South Division, the Bulldogs (5-1 in the division) will take on American University (3-5) in a first-round match at 9 p.m. Friday.
Not bad for a bunch of cadets who use their one weekly night of leave from the barracks to practice, and who fund much of the team's expenses themselves.
"It's a challenge," said Courtenay, an NHL veteran who was MVP of the East Coast Hockey League in 1996-97 and has been The Citadel's volunteer coach for four years. "At the beginning of each year, you never know what you are looking at. None of these kids are on hockey scholarships, and they know they are students first and hockey players second.
"But every year, we have gotten better, and this year we've had some things come together. My hat's off to them; they've really played well the majority of the year."
As a club sport, Citadel hockey has no athletic scholarships and does not receive the same support from campus as varsity sports. Expenses can pile up quickly in hockey, with demands for equipment, ice time and travel as a Division III member of the American Collegiate Hockey Association.
Buchanan, a senior and team captain, said each of The Citadel's 20 or so players pays $1,500 per year in dues for the team. Most of the remaining budget of more than $100,000 is filled out through fundraisers and alumni donations.
"We do tailgates during football season, and the alumni are great about supporting us," said Buchanan, who also is a member of The Citadel's prestigious Summerall Guards. "We have five Summerall Guards on the team, so we share tailgates with them and then split the profits, so that's been good for us."
The Buchanan family is a driving force behind Citadel hockey. His mother and father, Darci and Karl, moved to Charleston from Raleigh when Andrew came to The Citadel. They practically run the club, taking care of everything from scheduling and travel plans to designing team sweaters and raising money.
"Karl has done a fantastic job reaching out to alumni to help these guys," Courtenay said.
Said Andrew, "My mom and dad have put a lot of hours into this — tailgating, traveling with the team, booking our schedule. Usually it falls to the team captain to do all of that, so having them has been a blessing."
Winless just a few seasons ago, The Citadel this year took the Senior Leaders of Tomorrow tournament against fellow military schools with wins over Navy and Coast Guard. The Bulldogs also beat VMI, Elon, Richmond, Appalachian State, High Point and Old Dominion, and split a pair of matches with Tennessee.
"What's really cool is that we have a school of 2,000 or so students, and we compete against schools with 40,000 students," Andrew Buchanan said. "And we hold our own, and that's something to be proud of."
The Bulldogs draw their players from all over, including a growing number from South Carolina. Top scorer Derek Williams is from Brighton, Michigan; center Skyler Rossbach is from Cleveland; and center Marcus Mander played hockey for Bishop England High School.
There's a large range of skill level, but Courtenay says that's true at every level of hockey.
"What every player can bring is work ethic," he said. "Skill-wise, you ask any pro — everyone is a piece of the puzzle, and that's what makes a good team. We've got skill guys and we've got bangers, and the guys know that. As long as you know your role, you can have success."