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After ACHA stint, West Covina’s Barriga earns NCAA D-I spot with AIC

 

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Elijiah Barriga didn’t let an unscheduled detour knock him off his goal of playing NCAA Division I hockey.

Still, the path the West Covina native took to American International College, a rapidly improving program in Atlantic Hockey, is rare.

After playing youth hockey primarily in Orange County, Barriga enjoyed seasons of 40 and then 57 points with Salmon Arm in the British Columbia Hockey League. His play warranted plenty of looks from college recruiters, including Yellow Jackets assistant Mike Towns.

In fact, Barriga was ready to commit to AIC when he discovered he was missing a credit he needed in order to qualify for the Springfield, Mass., school.

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“That was pretty tough because I thought my college was all set,” he said. “But my coaches growing up always told me that someone is always watching.”

His junior eligibility exhausted, Barriga went to UNLV last season to get his academics in order and play ACHA hockey. He was a success on both fronts and put up 34 points, including 21 goals, in 27 games for the Division I ACHA team.

“It was a place to excel even more,” he said. “I knew schools were watching me, and that pushed me to keep improving.”

Towns was one of the recruiters who kept tabs on him, and as it went, the Yellow Jackets found themselves in need of players for the 2018-19 season.

“Around Christmas last year, we were looking for some forwards,” Towns said. “I was curious how he was doing. We had to do a little bit of compliance background to see if he would be eligible. He’d worked hard and was.

“We were thrilled to get him. We knew he was a good player in junior and had watched him a lot. Sometimes we have to look some places other schools aren’t looking.

“Going from club hockey to Division I is a unique way.”

The choice to transfer was an easy one for Barriga.

“AIC said they would keep an eye on me, and they did,” he said. “They were loyal. I won’t ever forget that.”

Barriga has centered a line for the Yellow Jackets, who were near the top of the AHA standings at the Christmas break. His attention to detail has made the biggest impression, Towns said.

“His strength is his hockey IQ,” Towns said. “He’ll never wow you with great plays, but he makes a lot of the right plays over and over, and it adds up. That makes him a successful player.

“You see glimpses of that California roller hockey skill.”

Still, the transition wasn’t seamless.

“He didn’t get into the lineup for the first month of the season,” Towns added. “It was a big adjustment for him, but once he got in and adjusted to a different pace and the finer details we were asking him to do, he’s done well.”

Barriga grew up playing mainly for Orange County Hockey Club and the Anaheim Jr. Ducks. He credited a slew of California coaches – Jean Labbe, Jim Burcar, Larry Barron and his skating coach, Mike Bickley – for helping prepare him for juniors.

Barriga’s one year in Las Vegas wasn’t without its highlights, he said. It coincided with the Vegas Golden Knights’ inaugural season, and his UNLV team got to play a handful of games at T-Mobile Arena as well as take in some of the NHL club’s games.

“Not only is it an incredible facility, but it’s one of the loudest places I’ve ever been,” he said. “It’s just crazy. People there are so excited to have a pro team of their own.”

There are parallels to Barriga’s journey, which has taken some crazy twists and turns as well. But there is no denying his excitement about achieving his Division I goal.

Photo/AIC Athletics

— Chris Bayee

(Jan. 10, 2019)