Goalie's Return Boosts UW Hockey Club's Hopes for 2009-10 Season
In the coming days, the University of Wyoming hockey club's rivals are going to begin to hear the news.
And when they do, Graham Barrett is certain the reaction will be the same -- from the Air Force Academy to Fresno State University and from Dordt College to Colorado College.
"When the other teams find out that he's back, they're not going to be happy," Barrett says with a smirk. "Not happy at all."
What is especially good news to the Cowboys will be as welcome to their opponents as an odd-man rush: Kenny Ainsworth is back between the pipes for UW.
The surprising return of Ainsworth, who, two seasons ago, was among the top goalkeepers in Division III of the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) -- coupled with an injection of new talent that has greatly improved the Cowboys' depth -- has UW talking about a return to the national championship tournament.
"We've got a lot of really good players and, from what I understand, we have a lot more talent on this team than last year," says Mitch Nelson, a club rookie from Sheridan. "Every line has the potential to put up points, we have two amazing goalies and we have a few guys who have been here and will provide the leadership. I really just think we've got a team that's going to get a lot better, and in a hurry, with some ice time."
The Cowboys looked every bit the part of a contender last weekend against Montana State University, twice beating the Division II Hellcats to open a 29-game schedule that includes seven games at the Laramie Community Ice Arena and eight games at the Taco John's Events Center in Cheyenne.
Following its annual alumni game at 8 p.m. Friday in Laramie, UW resumes its season with a 7:30 p.m. Saturday faceoff in Boulder against the University of Colorado, one of the club's top rivals in the ACHA's Pacific Region.
In its season-opening series, UW displayed the type of offensive balance and domination in goal that Coach Shawn Rockey believes could become commonplace this season. Eleven different players recorded at least one point, and Ainsworth (Casper) and Robert Kola (Colorado Springs, Colo.) yielded just two goals on 48 shots.
"I am really excited to see what this team is going to accomplish this season," says Rockey, who guided the Cowboys to a 13-11 record last season, his first full year on the job. "We have such an influx of talent with 14 freshmen, which might seem really bad but it's actually really good. These guys are already playing together, working together and helping each other. We have a solid hockey club."
While UW expects immediate contributions from several of its new faces -- including Jake Bates, a Jackson product whom some players believe may already be the team's top defenseman, and forwards Nelson, Cody Suder (Laramie) and Levi Wood (Cheyenne) -- it's the familiar face of Ainsworth that could make all the difference.
An imposing presence in the net at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, Ainsworth posted a stellar 3.02 goals-against-average during the 2007-08 season, when the Cowboys finished 15-11.
By comparison, UW held opponents to three goals or less in just seven of 24 games last season.
"I'm sure that a lot of the teams don't know he's back and when they see his name on our roster, they're going to wonder, ‘Is this legit?'" says Erik Blomberg, a highly-skilled forward from Parker, Colo., who is the club's top returning offensive force. "They're going to be like, ‘Is he really back?'"
Ainsworth, who didn't show any rink rust Saturday night in his season debut against Montana State at the Casper Ice Arena, returned to UW this semester to complete pre-requisite classes to gain admittance to medical school.
On the ice, Ainsworth hopes to help the Cowboys return to ACHA prominence. UW placed five times at nationals from 2001-06, including a championship victory over South Dakota State University in 2001 and a runner-up finish to Robert Morris University the following season.
But the Cowboys haven't qualified for the 16-team championship event in the past three seasons.
"The one thing we haven't accomplished since I've been playing is we have never won nationals, and I want to help us do that," Ainsworth says. "We have a lot of talent on this team and this just might be the year to do it."
When Ainsworth isn't guarding the UW net, Kola will be. In succeeding Ainsworth last season as the club's top goalie, Kola posted two shutouts in 16 games and allowed 5.05 goals per game, a statistic that teammates don't believe reflects his true talent.
"Everybody knows Kenny's good, but Kola is a pretty phenomenal goalie, too," Blomberg says. "For us to have two solid goalies like that is unreal. It's really going to free us up to just go out and play hockey. We're not going to have to worry about either guy."
The Cowboys, meanwhile, hope to give opposing goalkeepers plenty to worry about.
Unlike the past few seasons, when UW relied primarily on its first two offensive lines -- fronted by Barrett, now a club assistant coach, and Blomberg, who has totaled 22 goals in each of his first two seasons -- Rockey says the Cowboys have the depth to match any of their opponents.
The cast of returnees, in addition to Blomberg, includes Ryan Allred (Laramie), Will Alpsteg (Kearney, Neb.), Cody Leeper (Bondurant) and Michael Leriger (Houston, Texas).
Newcomers Seth Farrell (Longmont, Colo.), Dustin Galbreath (Highlands Ranch, Colo.) and Billy Ross (Superior, Colo.) also figure to play key roles.
"We're four lines deep this year," says Rockey. "We couldn't say that last year."
And, yet, that might not be the worst news for UW's opponents.
"When Kenny left, he was on top of the game," Rockey says. "When teams start to find out that he's back, I know they're going to be saying, ‘What's Ainsworth doing back.'"
Posted on Thursday, October 08, 2009