By Alex Kyrias, NAHL
The Coulee Region Chill faced a couple of challenges entering last season. One was how to improve on a season in which they won just 15 games finished at the bottom of their division. The other was adapting to new surroundings.
Prior to last year, the Chill were playing as the North Iowa Outlaws in Mason City, Iowa (now home to an NA3HL team). However, back on March 2, 2010, the team officially announced the move, a name change and sights were already set on the 2010-11 season. The move was a long time in the making according to Coulee Region owner/governor Mark Motz who stated that “the Onalaska, Wisconsin area was really our first choice when we bought a franchise five years ago. We had been at Mason City for five years, and when we came back to talk about coming to Onalaska again we were able to make the whole thing happen."
Coulee Region head coach Garrett Strot said the adaptation to the new surroundings was an easy transition. “The entire area and community has been great. One of our biggest worries was how would they receive a level like the NAHL, which they had never seen before? I think they made the biggest statement during our fifth and deciding game in the Central Division finals against Bismarck. We barely had time to promote and sell the game, which was on a Monday night. The place was full of people and rocking, so that really showed us they type of support they could give us,” said Strot.
On the ice, the Chill improved by 18 wins in total and put together a year that was certainly worthy of a divisional crown. The Chill opened up with impressive 3-0-1 record at the NAHL Showcase and continued the hot start with three wins in the their next four games. As the central race heated up, so di the Chill particularly in February and March putting themselves in position to win the Central Division title heading into the final weekend locked up in a log jam with both Owatonna and Alexandria. However, three losses during the final weekend, including one at home to Austin the final regular game of the year gave Alexandria the title, one point ahead of Coulee Region.
“I think we could have folded the tents right there and had a poor attitude going into the playoffs, but I was proud of the way our guys responded,” said Strot. The Chill dispatched Owatonna in the Central Semi-Finals in four games, marking the first time the organization had won a playoff series. Then in the Central finals, they gave the defending Robertson Champion Bismarck Bobcats all they could handle by taking them to a fifth and deciding game, but came up an empty-net goal short. “It was a tough way to lose because we scored first and were in the game the entire way,” said Strot. “It was also the last game for two of the better players our organization has ever seen in Zac Frishmon and Connor Gaarder, but we were excited they were moving onto NCAA Division I hockey.”
The Chill should be plenty motivated after coming so close to winning a divisional playoff title. Strot said that in building the team for this year, he was looking for the same type of players that made last year such a success. “We tried to find guys that had similar skill sets to those that were leaving so we could plug them into the system and have them work well with some of the returning players, who are a year more seasoned and know the system,” said Strot. After 33 wins and coming within a whisker of both the divisional regular season and playoff titles, the plan seems like the correct one for the Chill.
Florida native David Ripple will be back in 2011-12, a year after leading the team in power play goals with 11. As a matter of fact, over half of Ripple’s goals were scored on the power play. Forwards Ben Jaremko, Jamie Hughes and Tommy Miller are also going to be looked upon by Strot to have good seasons after spending last year with the Chill. “I think the big key will be the ice time for these guys,” said Strot. “The all have looked good, but now they will be working in all situations and seeing more ice time, so we hope they respond like we think they can.” In goal, the Chill have the benefit of returning Aaron Davis, who appeared in 18 regular season games last year and also backstopped the Chill to their Central Semi-Final series win against Owatonna.
When fans look at the Coulee Region Chill they are seeing an upward trend built by Strot’s experience and players who are skilled and adapt to a proven system. So there is reason to believe that the Chill can once again be a contender for a regular season and playoff title.
Next up in the NAHL’s 28 teams in 28 days series, the Dawson Creek Rage.