After finishing in third place in the four-team South Division a season ago - a year that culminated in a first-round playoff loss - the Wichita Falls Wildcats have all eyes on contending for a division title and more in 2009-10.
And with their three open tryouts camps in the books, head coach John Bowkus and assistant coach Mike Flanagan are nothing but optimistic as they prepare for their team's main camp, which will be held in Wichita Falls in August.
“It feels like a long road to get to this point, but a lot has happened in a short amount of time,” said Bowkus. “In the span of only two months, we've completed the process of tendering players, made picks in the NAHL draft, and held our three camps (in California, Michigan and Minnesota).”
The team's pre-draft camp held just outside of Los Angeles paid immediate dividends, as Wichita Falls picked Kevin Fraize with one of its draft selections.
“Kevin reminds me a lot of a (Wildcats forward) Sean McKenzie-type player - physical and offensive-minded," said Bowkus. "He has a really mean streak and plays with an edge.”
The Wildcats were also impressed with Ryan Frost, so much so that they offered him a tender on spot at the camp.
“Ryan is a gifted forward who can make plays out on the ice," said Bowkus, who invited 18 players from the pre-draft camp to the team's main camp. "We're hoping he proves us right.”
The Wildcats coach took notice of a few more prospects at the California camp, including previously tendered players Brian Phillips, Robert Francis, Chris Rial and Daniel Gentzler.
At the Wildcats' Michigan camp held in East Lansing, Bowkus was impressed with a number of players expected to return to Wichita Falls for their second seasons, among them forward Anthony Iaquinto.
“He was by far the most noticeable and not because of his physical play,” said Bowkus. “He skated really well and was able to make plays and finish when he had chances.”
Other veteran players who skated at the Michigan camp were McKenzie, defensemen Curtis Heinz and Matt Shost; forward Broderick Browne; and goaltender Phil Graveline.
“There were a few other players that will be at (main) camp that will definitely get a good look to make our team, including Brandon Stroud, who we tendered from the Cleveland Barons,” said Bowkus, who will have 15 players from the Michigan camp at his team's main camp.
The Wildcats' last open camp of the summer was held in Bloomington, Minn., marking the first time the team has held a camp in Minnesota under the leadership of Bowkus and Flanagan.
“The Minnesota camp was added because we found there was a lot of interest from players extending from Colorado to Wisconsin that wanted to attend our camps, but geographically it was very hard with today's economy," said Bowkus. "In the past two seasons, we were able to make some great connections with coaches in Minnesota hockey to help us, too.”
Several returning veterans made their presence known in Bloomington, among them forwards Adam Kuhn, Ryan Amin and Aaron Quick.
“The camp was successful and our veterans that were in attendance showed why you have to have veterans in this league,” said Bowkus, who offered invites to 14 players from Minnesota's camp to main camp.
Bowkus also liked the prospects of Kyle Lebrun, a Boston native selected by the Wildcats in May's draft.
“He should be an impact defenseman for us right away,” said the coach, who also noted the excellent play of Brian Sheehan, a tendered player.
Bowkus noted that some European players, as well as other players unable to attend any of the open camps, will round out the approximate 60-man field at the team's main camp.