First-year head coach Mark LeRose of the Wichita Falls Wildcats has come a long way in just a year. At this time last year, LeRose was working in the American Hockey League as an assistant coach with the Houston Aeros, the AAA affiliate of the Minnesota Wild. He was molding the NHL stars of tomorrow in professional hockey.
But, when the chance came at the start of the season to become a head coach again, it was something LeRose could not pass up.
“Honestly, when I got the job in Wichita Falls, I was excited to be running things again,” said LeRose. “I had heard some great things about the team, the fans and the community, so it wasn’t hard to say yes and so far it has been advertised.”
The Wildcats got off to a rousing start under LeRose, who took the helm just a few weeks before the regular season. The Wildcats didn’t miss a beat, winning their first six games of the season and they remained in first place in the South Division until mid-November.
But, like any team, the Wildcats experienced their challenges as well.
Forward Mac Olson, who has led the Wildcats in scoring the majority of the season and was a part of the first NAHL Top Prospects team, recently suffered a lower-body injury that may force him to miss the remainder of the regular season.
“It certainly is a big loss for us because of the type of player and leader Mac is, but I feel we have the team and personnel to keep going and be successful,” said LeRose. “We have guys that should be ready to step in and seize the opportunity.”
One of those players is Dakota Klecha. Wildcats fans and opposing fans may know him as the current NAHL penalty minute leader and agitator. However, Klecha also leads the Wildcats in goals (21) and is third in points with 33. With 203 penalty minutes to date, one would think Klecha gets it because of his size and presence on the ice like most junior hockey penalty minute leaders, but Klecha is the opposite. He’s a 5-foot-10, 155-pound forward with skill, speed and creativity, or as LeRose like to put it: “A spark plug.”
“Dakota is a very rare player,” said the coach. “He can score, he can fight and he competes each and every night. My job is to constantly remind him that he’s more valuable to our team on the ice than sitting in the penalty box. We have to have him in the game physically as well as emotionally.”
With the Wildcats firmly in fourth place in the South Division and heading towards another playoff berth, it would appear that LeRose has adapted comfortably to his new role.
“There isn’t as much difference as it seems,” said LeRose when referring to the transition from coaching players in the AHL to the NAHL. “Players are trying to get to the next level and working very hard to move up the ladder. So, there’s a level of comfort there in that the goals haven’t changed for the players on your team. They all want to get better every day and that’s the encouraging thing.”
However, the two levels do have their differences, according to LeRose.
“With the players being younger at the NAHL level, they’re more receptive to a coach’s ideas and philosophies,” he said. “Players at the AHL level are pretty much engrained in their ways and their styles. You’re trying to put them in the best situations to succeed as a player. At the NAHL level, I have to be much more of a teacher and I think I have a group here in Wichita Falls that’s easy and fun to work with.”
SOUTH DIVISION REPORT
AMARILLO BULLS: Amarillo will be happy to turn the calendar to February after going just 4-5-1 in the month of January. Still, the Bulls remain in second place in the South Division with 53 points and are six points behind Topeka. The Bulls dropped two of three games last week, which included a home loss to New Mexico and a split in two games at Corpus Christi. Defenseman Derek Hills picked up a goal and three assists for the Bulls to earn South Division Player of the Week honors. On Thursday, the Campbell River, British Columbia, native tallied two assists in a 4-3 loss to the New Mexico Mustangs. The next night, the 20-year-old recorded another assist as the Bulls fell to Corpus Christi, 3-2. Hills then connected for the game-winning goal in a 4-1 triumph over the IceRays on Saturday. The Bulls host the New Mexico Mustangs for two this weekend.
CORPUS CHRISTI ICERAYS: The IceRays split with the Amarillo Bulls last weekend in Corpus Christi, helping the IceRays keep pace for the fourth and final playoff spot in the South Division, as they remain six points behind Wichita Falls with 16 games to go. It was a fantastic weekend at the gate for the IceRays organization as they averaged 4,495 fans for the two-game weekend series. On Friday, Corpus Christi got two points apiece from Sam Cheraso (including the game-winner), Mychal Monteith and Brandon Marshall in a 3-2 win over the Bulls. Goaltender Pheonix Copley made 23 saves in the win. On Saturday, Copley’s 39 saves and Cheraso’s second goal of the weekend weren’t enough in a 4-1 loss. The ‘Rays face three tough road games at division-leading Topeka this weekend.
NEW MEXICO MUSTANGS: History was made last Thursday as the Mustangs won their first road game of the season with a 4-3 win at Amarillo. Forward newcomer Christian Merritt had a goal and an assist, as did defenseman Kalin Paul, who eventually ended up with the game-winner. Goaltender Marco Wieser made 44 saves in the win, which was just one save behind his career high. New Mexico found it much tougher on the weekend however, as they fell in two games at Wichita Falls. On Friday, the Mustangs were blanked 5-0 by the Wildcats, and on Saturday another goal from Merritt wasn’t enough in a tough 2-1 loss. The Mustangs are on the road again this weekend in Texas on Thursday and Amarillo on Friday and Saturday.
TEXAS TORNADO: The Tornado snapped a three-game skid last weekend with a big 4-3 shootout win in Wenatchee on Friday. Goaltender Jimmy Kruger made 37 saves, including stopping five of six Wild shooters in the shootout, and the Tornado got two points apiece from Nate Sliwinski and Jack Prince. One night later, the Tornado was blanked by the Wild 3-0. With a goal in Wenatchee last Friday night, forward JD Howard now has four goals in his last four games and leads the Tornado this season with 21 goals. Texas hosts New Mexico on Thursday before playing a home-and-home series with Wichita Falls on Friday and Saturday. The Tornado is a combined 7-0-0 against New Mexico and Wichita Falls this season.
TOPEKA ROADRUNNERS: Topeka took three of four points last weekend in two home games against the Springfield Jr. Blues to increase their South Division lead over both Amarillo and Texas to six points. On Friday, the ‘Runners got 31 saves from goaltender Rasmus Tirronen and multi-point nights from Michael Hill, Nate Milam, Ryan White and Brian Christie in a convincing 5-0 shutout win. Forward Justin Hussar’s 22nd goal of the season just 2:05 into the game would prove to be the game-winner. A night later, the RoadRunners fell to the Jr. Blues 2-1 in a shootout, which snapped Topeka’s nine-game winning streak. Andrew O’Leary scored the lone goal in regulation. Despite the shootout loss, the RoadRunners still haven’t lost a game in regulation in 2011. Topeka will host Corpus Christi for three straight in Topeka beginning on Thursday.