PREP HOCKEY: New faces, high hopes at Chugiak and Eagle River

Saturday, December 2, 2017 - 17:09
  • Chugiak’s Daniel Casey skates against Wasilla. Casey is Chugiak’s captain and one of about 10 players who suited up for the Mustangs last season. (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)
  • Eagle River goalie Ryan gray prepares to make one of his 27 saves during a 2-2 nonconference hockey tie with Wasilla on Friday, Nov. 3, 2017 at the McDonald Center in Eagle River. (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)

One of the cold realities of high school hockey in Alaska is good things don’t often last long, and such is the case with both Chugiak and Eagle River this season as each team will strive to find new identities after historic success a season ago.

For the defending state champion Mustangs, six first-team All-Cook Inlet Conference players are gone, including the state’s top scoring line and two of Alaska’s best goalies. For the Wolves — who are coming off a program-best back-to-back state tournament appearances — the team will have to forge a new identity with a new coach and without a pair of high-scoring brothers who had a big hand in the team’s unprecedented two-year run of success.

Wolves hope to keep momentum going

“You can’t really even compare this year and last year because every school is different,” said Eagle River assistant coach Justin Martin, who joins former Wolves head coach Kirby Senden and ERHS grad Ben Russell as assistants to first-year head coach Travis Martin on the Eagle River bench.

Travis Martin — who served as an assistant to Bill Comer last season — was unavailable for an interview after his team’s 2-2 tie with Wasilla. But his brother said the team is confident now that Eagle River has established itself as a legitimate force in the Cook Inlet Conference.

“Especially the last couple years, now those new kids don’t have that experience,” of being intimidated by other teams in the powerful CIC, Justin Martin said. “They don’t have that fear.”

The Wolves’ success the past two seasons had a lot to do with Sutton and Cam McDonald, a pair of all-conference players who were the team’s stars last year. Both are now playing for the Kenai River Brown Bears, a junior team based in Soldotna. Also leaving the team this year were forward Ben Rinckey, who is spending his senior year playing for the Great Falls Americans, and Josh Linn, who is with the Madison (Wisc.) Jr. Capitols.

Eagle River does have a number of returning players, including at least 10 who suited up for the Wolves in the state playoffs last season. Goalies Ryan Gray and Brendan Whetsell return in net, as do several other top players including forwards Ty McEnaney and Brayden Rachow and defensemen Nick Silance, Ian Newman, Nat Nielsen and Austin Linn.

But about half the team’s roster is made up of newcomers to the varsity.

“We’ve got a lot of young kids,” Justin Martin said.

The assistant coach said the key to Eagle River’s success will be getting improvement from veteran players while building up the Wolves’ younger skaters.

“It’s part of the responsibility of the coaches to build them up in the fundamentals and not put too much pressure on the new guys,” he said.

Chugiak looks to rebuild

At Chugiak, the Mustangs bear little resemblance to the team that won both the CIC and state championships last winter. The standout line of Zach Krajnik, John Hammer and Andrew Beckett — a trio that lit up opposing teams for four years at Chugiak — has graduated, and top goalies Eric Yancey and Jack Walters have elected to head Outside for their senior seasons. Also gone to the Midget ranks is junior defenseman Zach Plucinski, one of two all-conference defensemen for the Mustangs last year. The other, Kadin Yockey, graduated, leaving Chugiak with an entire all-star lineup of players no longer in blue and black.

Rather than relying on star players, head coach Rodney Wild said this year’s Mustangs will have to play more of a team game.

“We’re going to be relying on each other heavily,” Wild said following a 3-3 tie with Wasilla on Oct. 28.

Because the Mustangs are rebuilding after their fifth state championship season, Wild said conditioning has been a priority in the preseason. For the old-school coach, that means lots and lots of skating.

“It’s not in vogue anymore to skate for conditioning, it’s all about using the ice time for skill development and then train off ice,” said Wild, now in his 18th season leading the team. “Which I don’t agree with.”

Wild said he’s been pushing the boys hard, which he said will pay dividends down the road.

“You don’t have to have top end talent as long as you have that work ethic from top to bottom,” he said.

Chugiak’s cupboard isn’t completely bare, with returning forwards Luke Momblow, Jacob Kosinski, Grant Epple, Noah Denny, Riley Lindberg, Peter Symmes and captain Daniel Casey likely to shoulder much of the scoring load this season. Momblow scored five goals on a recent trip to Fairbanks, while Epple had a hat trick against North Pole. Also back on the blue line are returning defensemen Tyler Huffer and Josh Boneta — who Wild said has made big strides since last season.

Chugiak will rely on varsity newcomer Tanner Holta in net, who will try to fill the big skates of Yancey and Walters — who Wild touted as the state’s top two goalies last season.

Wild said he has no complaints about his team’s effort in the preseason, and expects the squad to get better as the season wears on.

“These kids have worked super hard.”

Upcoming schedule:

Thursday, Nov. 9

HOCKEY

Eagle River at Palmer Tourney, TBA

Friday, Nov. 10

HOCKEY

Service at Chugiak, McDonald Center, 7:15 p.m.

Eagle River at Palmer Tourney, TBA

Saturday, Nov. 11

HOCKEY

Eagle River at Palmer Tourney, TBA

Tuesday, Nov. 14

HOCKEY

Dimond at Chugiak, McDonald Center, 7:15 p.m.

Thursday, Nov. 16

HOCKEY

Eagle River at South, Ben Boeke, 6:30 p.m.

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