It's been seven long years since freshman goalie Steve Bowen turned back 35 enemy shots by Penn State and took MVP honors as Navy's club ice hockey team won its own sixth annual Crab Pot Tournament by 6-2 over the Nittany Lions.

That was an especially sweet victory because it avenged an embarrassing 11-2 loss to Penn State the year beforein the Crab Pot final. It was also the last time Navy's ice hockey team won its own tourney.

Those were the days of the most successful Navy coach in the 21-year history of the club ice hockey program, Steve Gordon (93-29-6, 1975-1983), but these are now the days of third-year head coach Jim Barry, an economics professor and counselor at the academy in Annapolis.

The program foundered after the departure of Gordon following the 1982-1983 season, but was rejuvenated in 1988-1989 by Barry. In three short years, Barry has the Mids, currently ranked 10th in the nation by Club Sports magazine, in position to qualify for the National Club Ice Hockey Tournament in Tempe, Ariz., Feb. 27 to March 2.

Only eight teams will be invited to the nationals and Navy can be one of them by winning the 14th annual Crab Pot this weekend.

Quite obviously, a lot will be at stake in this weekend's Crab Pot at Dahlgren Hall where admission is always free to hockey fans.

Not only would the Midshipmen end their seven-year drought in the Crab Pot, but they also would land a berth in the nationals. And qualifying for the nationals "has been our goal since day one," said senior tri-captain Steve Jennings.

Navy (8-3-1) will open in the Crab Pot at noon tomorrow against Fordham University of New York City (6-8-1). The secondgame at about 2:30 p.m. pits West Chester (Pa.) College (14-3) against the University of Rhode Island (12-1).

The two winners will tangle Sunday at 2:30 p.m. following the consolation game.

"We hopeto be there in the championship game," said Barry, a native of Massachusetts who played at Boston College and later coached junior college hockey in the New England state in the mid-70s.

"We've been told by the people running the nationals that if we win the Crab Pot we will get an invitation because of the rankings of the teams playing."

Rhode Island is ranked fifth by Club Sports, while West Chester is No. 9 and Navy is No. 10. Fordham is not in the top 10 but has a very competitive squad.

Navy just missed the nationals last year after going 14-8-1 and winning the Northeastern Collegiate Hockey Association Southern Division title. The Mids were ranked No. 12 by Club Sports.

In Barry's first year, Navy went 9-8 and was ranked 20th,but the warning was put out that year to collegiate hockey foes, Jennings said.

"We could all tell right away that Coach Barry reallycared, and since he came here three years ago, everybody loves to goto practice," said Jennings, who grew up and played rec and high school hockey in the ice hockey hotbed of Boston.

"Now everybody loves to come to practice, cares about each other. Before that we dreaded practice. You could just tell that we were going to be an outstanding team."

Both Barry, Jennings and several other players on the team from New England agree that the Crab Pot is a great idea and is the Chesapeake Bay area's answer to the Boston Beanpot.

It was Gordon who started the Crab Pot in 1978 with Navy winning over a field that included Delaware, Ramapo College of New Jersey and Penn State. A former goalie at Northeastern University (Boston), Gordon played inthe Bean Pot, which Barry and Jenkins call the "ultimate in college hockey in New England."

The Bean Pot usually consists of Northeastern, Boston University, Boston College and Harvard University (Cambridge, Mass.).

Years ago, Gordon told me that the Crab Pot was the Bean Pot offspring and that "we named ours after the Maryland Blue Crab."

Navy won four of the first six Crab Pots under Gordon, buthas been shut out since 1983. That year was the culmination of a three-year, intense rivalry with Penn State.

The 1983 win over Penn State by 6-2 followed the Nittany Lions' crushing 11-2 defeat of the Mids in 1982. Navy took a 5-4 thriller in overtime in 1981, the fourth annual Crab Pot.

A similar rivalry could be developing between Navy and West Chester for this year's Crab Pot. The two nationally ranked club squads have split two games this season and may very well skate against each other in Sunday's final.

Back on Dec. 7 in front of a packed house of more than 2,000 fans at Dahlgren Hall, Navy nipped West Chester, 3-2. The rematch at West Chester on Jan. 12 found the home team winning again as Navy was sunk, 6-2.

The Mids bounced back from the defeat to hammer Delaware, 6-3, as Jennings fired in two goals, and then Navy took two more just this past weekend. Saturday, Navy ripped the University of Maryland, 8-3, as Bob Braun (two goals) led a parade of seven Mids who scored.

Sunday, the Mids humbled the Georgetown Hoyas, 11-1, as Tim Fetsch scored a hat trick and ex-Navy football player turned skater, Jeff Fogarty chipped in withtwo goals.

In the final tune-up for the Crab Pot, Barry made sure both his goalies got equal playing time. Richie Doyle rejected 23 Terrapin shots on Saturday and Bob Pothier posted 25 saves the next day in the romp over Georgetown.

"We're ready and the kids know howimportant this Crab Pot is because only eight teams are going to thenationals," said Barry. "If we win the Crab Pot, whether it's over West Chester or Rhode Island, we will move up in the rankings somewhere in the top eight."

Barry said he wouldn't be surprised to see West Chester knock off fifth-ranked Rhode Island. In a recent tournament, West Chester lost by a goal to Eastern Michigan University of Ypsilanti, Mich., and the latter then lost to Rhode Island by one tally.

"From all indications, West Chester and Rhode Island are pretty equal, and we should take Fordham," said Barry, carefully avoiding saying anything that would fire up either West Chester or Rhode Island.

Barry was waiting for word last night or today from the Naval Academy brass on whether an ice hockey trip to the nationals would be paid for by the academy. The ice hockey team is not a varsity sport recognized by the Naval Academy Athletic Association, but is a club team.

However, Barry and his guys have received the support of Athletic Director Jack Lengyel and the NAAA because of the team's immense popularity around the yard in Annapolis.

The players have to maintain C-plus grade-point averages (2.15 and above on a scale of four) to make ice hockey road trips, and other standards similar to those required by varsity athletes must be met.

Crowds of 1,500 to 2,000have become commonplace the past two years when the Mids skate on the Dahlgren Hall ice. And Navy ice hockey souvenirs, gear and T-shirtsare available in the Mids' store.

"It's really caught on and most people around here consider it a varsity sport, even though it officially is not," said Jennings.

Barry is banking on the popularityamong the members of the brigade, not to mention the civilian following of local ice hockey fanatics. Free admission to watch quality hockey at a quality setting (scenic Dahlgren Hall) is public relations plus for the academy.

"I'm confident because of the way the program has caught on that we will receive permission to go to the nationals," said Barry.

"That's not all either. They (Club Sports organization that assembles the nationals) have asked us to host the nationals next year. The tournament officials said the academy would be a natural. Their comment to me was "who wouldn't want to come to the Naval Academy for a national tournament?"

For now though, Navy's hockey team is hoping to travel to this year's nationals.

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