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When University of Wyoming club hockey coach Shawn Rockey looks at his roster, he
sees more than names and numbers.
He sees a team destined for the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) Division III National Championship Tournament.
"We just have the right mix of guys," Rockey says. "We haven't been (to nationals) in four years and we have the itch now. Everybody is already talking about, not just the veterans, but the new guys, too. They want it and if we stick together as a team and stay healthy, we have the talent to get there."
The Cowboys begin their quest to return to ACHA prominence this weekend at Spirit Ice Hall in Gillette with a pair of games against Montana State University, the first of 14 scheduled contests in Wyoming. The team's 26-game campaign also includes eight faceoffs at the Laramie Community Ice Arena and four games at the Taco John's Events Center in Cheyenne.
What fans across the Cowboy State will see on the ice is skill at every position, from the offensive prowess of Mitch Nelson (Sheridan) and Erik Blomberg (Parker, Colo.) to the stingy defensive play of Jake Bates (Jackson) and a cast of club newcomers to the stellar goaltending of Robert Kola (Colorado Springs, Colo.).
"Getting to nationals, that's definitely my top priority and I know that's the goal of everybody else, too," says Kola, one of eight seniors and 16 returnees on the club. "We've scored a lot of goals the past few seasons, but I think we have even more goal-scoring potential this year. And, wow, our defense is just amazing.
"We're going to have a chance to win every game. I really think if we can get four goals, it's going to be tough for somebody to beat us."
It was a season ago. The Cowboys were 15-1 in games in which they scored four goals or more; 5-11 when they failed to net four goals.
With 12 of the 15 players who recorded double-digit points during the 2009-2010 season back on the ice, UW again figures to be an offensive force in the ACHA's Pacific Region.
In addition to Nelson and Blomberg, the Cowboys will continue to rely on Billy Ross (Superior, Colo.) and Luke Walker (Jackson), both of whom recorded 25 points last season, and Dustin Galbreath (Greenwich, Conn.), T.J. Peters (Jackson) and Levi Wood (Cheyenne).
"We're going to score enough goals," says Blomberg, who tallied 30 points on 18 goals and 12 assists last season.
UW also expects to receive an instant injection of offense from Matt Schulz, a club newcomer from Casper who netted a hat trick in the team's annual Alumni Game last weekend.
Schulz played last season for the Cody-based Yellowstone Quake, the only Junior A hockey program in Wyoming. Nationally, Junior A hockey features up-and-coming players, including future college and professional players ages 16-20.
A year ago, Nelson joined UW following a season with the Quake and ended up leading the Cowboys with 22 goals and 39 points. Rockey believes Schulz has the same potential.
"I really think he will step up. If he doesn't lead us in goals, he's going to be second or third on the team," says Rockey, who has guided UW to a 43-23 record in his first two full seasons as coach. "He has a goal scorer's touch."
The Cowboys appear in good shape on the defensive end, too. The team's top defenseman, Bates, returns to lead a unit bolstered by the additions of Evan Beasley (Houston, Texas), Jon Benight (Eagle Mountain, Utah) and Jim Fried (Kirkwood, Mo.).
In goal, Kola succeeds Kenny Ainsworth, who ranked among the nation's best with a 14-9 record and 2.81 goals-against average (GAA) following a surprise return to the team. While posting a 4-5 record last season, Kola had a 4.24 GAA, down from 5.05 the previous season.
"It's going to be a challenge to get the puck past him this year," says Blomberg, who will miss the first few weeks of the season after injuring his right knee in the Alumni Game. "It would be tough to throw a freshman into this situation, so it's just awesome to have him back. We're all behind Kola."
This isn't the first time Kola has replaced Ainsworth between the pipes. Two years ago, upon Ainsworth's graduation, Kola served as UW's top goalie and posted two shutouts in 16 games. But his play, even by his own admission, was choppy. Older and wiser, Kola believes he's learned from his experiences.
"When I look back at it, I tried to take on more of the pressure, more of the responsibility, than I was ready for," he says. "It really helped me a lot to get Kenny back (last season), because we fought for starts and pushed each other to get better.
"I have the right mentality now. The last time, I considered it my team and felt like it was my burden to carry. I know the guys a lot better now and I know they're all going to step up and share the responsibility."
A team effort might be what it takes for the Cowboys to get back to nationals, where they placed five times from 2001-2006, including a championship victory over South Dakota State University in 2001 and a runner-up finish to Robert Morris University the following season.
"I think we have more depth than I've ever seen on a hockey club. We have four lines that can score, a lot of skill on defense and a great starting goalie in Kola," says Nelson. "Last year, I thought we had a good enough team to go to nationals and we kind of choked at the end of the season.
"But," he adds, "this team is just so much better."