Thursday, 11.5.2015 / 10:51 am CT
By Alex von Keudell
WICHITA FALLS, TX – Advancing players to a higher level of hockey is something the Wichita Falls Wildcats organization has prided itself on since its inception in 2003. A dozen years later, the results have been indicative.
College – In the last three years alone, 37 Wildcats players have committed to playing collegiate hockey, 32 of whom earned Division 1 scholarships. Last season, the team led the North American Hockey League in D1 commitments with 14.
The Air Force Academy has been a common destination for Wildcats players. Wildcats alumni Ben Kucera, Tyler Ledford, Evan Okeley and Matt Koch are all on the current roster and have contributed points to the Falcons through six games this season.
Less than a month ago, the Falcons played the Denver University Pioneers, whose roster features alumni Rudy Junda, Evan Cowley, and Colin Staub. The two-game series was split, with the Air Force taking game 1 and Denver taking game 2. Koch had an assist in game 1, while Cowley made 26 saves on 27 shots in game 2.
A number of Wildcats alumni took their talents east. Nick Farmer, for instance, is in his freshman year at Niagara University and is third on the Purple Eagles in scoring with three points in six games. His first goal as an Eagle came against Matt Purmal’s St. Lawrence Saints. The ex-Wildcat defenseman had an assist in the 5-2 win over Niagara. Meanwhile at West Point, Nash Worden is fourth on the Army Black Knights in points.
Austin Shaw is set to begin his college hockey career at Princeton alongside fellow Wildcat alum Kevin Liss, who is now in his senior year. Liss’ former teammate with the Wildcats, Dennis Kravchenko, just won Hockey East’s Player of the Month with the U-Mass Amherst Minutemen. Kravchenko had 12 points in the month of October.
While some went east, others went north. David Zevnik, Kyle Bauman, Tommy Apap, Sam Piazza, Chris Knudson, Tucker Poolman, and Samu Salminen all committed to playing D1 hockey in Minnesota, Michigan, or North Dakota.
Piazza just got his first start in the Big 10 with the University of Michigan last weekend, while Bauman, Poolman, and Salminen have each contributed points this season at Bemidji State, North Dakota, and Northern Michigan, respectively. Apap is playing one season with the Fargo Force of the USHL before joining Knudson as a Michigan State Spartan.
Major Junior – Former Wildcat defenseman Konstantin Chernyuk had committed to playing D1 hockey for the University of Maine last season, but elected instead to sign with the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League, which is considered by some to be the best junior hockey league in the world. At 6’5”, Chernyuk has established himself as a shutdown defender for the Frontenacs.
Minor Professional – Wildcat alum Chad Costello has impressed tremendously at the professional level. Since 2011, he has bounced back and forth from the National Hockey League’s two affiliate leagues, the American Hockey League and the East Coast Hockey League. Last season with the Allen Americans, he scored a phenomenal 125 points, which led the entire ECHL. Now their captain, Costello has four points in six games with the Americans this season.
Kyle Kraemer, who played on the Wildcats from 2004-2006, is also currently playing professionally with the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL. He has three points in seven games this year.
Major Professional – Four former Wildcats who have been drafted by NHL teams are still active: Evan Cowley (Florida Panthers, 2013 Round 4, #92 overall,) Tucker Poolman (Winnipeg Jets, 2013 Round 5, #127 overall,) Zach Pochiro (St. Louis Blues, 2013 Round 4, #112 overall,) and Zach Trotman (2010 Round 7, #210 overall).
Cowley (2012-2013) is currently the starting goaltender for Denver University of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Through four games played with the Pioneers this season, Cowley is 2-2 with a .912 save percentage and a 2.55 goals against average.
Poolman (2011-2012) is a sophomore at the University of North Dakota in the NCHC and is second among defensemen with four points in six games played this season.
Pochiro (2011-2012) is playing with the Quad City Mallards of the ECHL and has moved back and forth from the Chicago Wolves of the AHL. He leads his team with seven points in as many games played this season with Quad City.
Trotman (2008-2009) is currently a defenseman for the Boston Bruins of the NHL. He played 27 games for the Bruins last season, registering a goal and four assists. He also played in a game this season with the Bruins on October 8th against the Winnipeg Jets and tallied two shots on goal and logged 13:29 of time on ice.
A quarter of the way through the 2015-2016 campaign, the Wildcats’ trend of sending players off to the next level of hockey does not appear to be in jeopardy. Returning forwards Austin Beaulieu and Erich Jaeger are committed to playing at the University of Alabama-Huntsville and the Air Force Academy, respectively. California natives Ben Lown and Rourke Russell are committed to Miami University of Ohio, and defenseman Jacob Dalton is committed to Bowling Green State University. With five players already dedicated to D1 programs and plenty of hockey left to be played this season, the hockey horizon looks bright indeed for the Wildcats.