Coach gets good players' response after challenge

Augusta RiverHawks coach Brad Ralph sat his team down a month ago and presented a challenge.


His first-year expansion team had spent the previous few weeks bouncing up and down the Southern Professional Hockey League standings, falling as low as tied for fourth place and climbing as high as second.

"I told them, 'Let's make sure we finish no lower than second place,' " Ralph said.

The RiverHawks haven't lost since, and they'll carry their league-high, nine-game winning streak into tonight's home game with a chance to pull to within two points of first-place Mississippi. With the final three regular-season games scheduled over the next three nights, Augusta has a chance to finish the weekend as the league's regular season champion.

"I'm proud that we've got to where we are," Ralph said. "We just have to make sure we're playing our best heading into the playoffs."

The RiverHawks have guaranteed themselves at least a second-place finish and need three wins and a Mississippi loss this weekend or two wins and two Mississippi losses to take the regular season title.

Augusta (33-20) will play host to sixth-place Knoxville (25-28) tonight and fourth-place Columbus (28-26) on Friday for Fan Appreciation Night at James Brown Arena. The RiverHawks, who have already broken the league record for road wins in a season with 17, will wrap up the regular season Saturday at seventh-place Fayetteville (21-33).

Mississippi (35-19) will play host to eighth-place Louisiana (16-38) on Friday and fifth-place Pensacola (27-26) on Saturday.

Though all six playoff spots have been claimed, no team knows what seed it will be in the postseason tournament because the standings are too close.

The SPHL will also begin releasing it's annual regular season league awards today, starting with the league's all-rookie team.

The All-SPHL First Team and Second Team will be released Friday and individual awards, including coach of the year and most valuable player, will be announced next week.

Ralph is considered a leading candidate for coach of the year, and team captain Matt Auffrey could walk away with the league's MVP award.

"He's a tremendous player, and he's over plus-20 in plus-minus," RiverHawks owner Bob Kerzner said. "To me, a league MVP is somebody who does everything, and Auffrey does."