By Alex Kyrias, NAHL
In the four years that the Topeka RoadRunners have been in Topeka, Kansas, very few teams in the NAHL can come close to both their record of success on the ice and the number of players that have moved onto the next level. It is a testament to the organizational philosophy started by owner/governor Don Stone and shared by the head coach and general manager Scott Langer.
Last season was no exception for the Roadrunners, who not only won 40+ games for the third year in a row, but also won their third division title in the last four years. One of the reasons for this is the RoadRunners ability to get off to a good start and last year was no exception. Topeka was only one of two teams that went through the NAHL Showcase undefeated, posting a perfect 4-0 record. After jockeying for first place through October and November with both Texas and Amarillo, the RoadRunners went on a run that would erase all doubt as to who the top team in the South Division was during the regular season. In a 30-game stretch from the middle of December to the middle of March, the RoadRunners went on a 27-3 run in that span. It not only assured Topeka of the South Division regular season title, but the best record in the NAHL heading into the playoffs.
As the host of the Robertson Cup Tournament, the RoadRunners had assured themselves of a spot in the big dance. After a grueling five-game series win against the determined Wichita Falls Wildcats, the RoadRunners faced their rival Amarillo Bulls in the South Finals. The Bulls would triumph in five games letting everyone know that the Robertson Cup was going to have to be earned. The first two games of the Robertson Cup were heartbreakers for the RoadRunners. Despite outshooting their opponents Fairbanks and Amarillo by a combined 79-41, they lost both games 4-3, ending any hopes of a Robertson Cup Championship on home ice. “We feel like it just wasn’t meant to be,” said Langer. “I generally feel like we outchanced our two opponents in those first two games, but I have to give them credit because they did the little things it took to win. We have to find a way to get it done in situations like that.”
Despite coming up short in the playoffs, the bigger picture remains a resounding success for Topeka. Langer is particularly pleased with all the college commitments that have occurred recently. “It’s what we are all here for, to see these players grow and move-on. We are concerned with the future of the players. It is a philosophy that comes down from the ownership. At the end of the day to see them determine their future by playing for the Topeka RoadRunners makes it all worthwhile,” said Langer. “I think it is one of the big reasons we are able to recruit because we do have a reputation of being an organization that really cares about its players and wants to see them move on and do well in life.”
The RoadRunners appear to again have a team that is going to not only contend in 2011-12, but one that has as good a chance as any to return to the Robertson Cup Tournament for a shot at redemption. Langer, who was also named the 2010-11 NAHL Coach of the Year, has plenty of returning players who will be hungry for another run and who he will lean on heavily to begin the season.
Heading that list is forward Kyle Sharkey, who led the team in scoring in the playoffs last year as a rookie. “He is a player that loves to play the game. He wants to be and play in Topeka and has a lot to prove as the go-to guy this season,” said Langer. Another player singled-out by Langer is forward Andrew O’Leary. He returns as a player that has a lot of size, plays big and had 39 points in his rookie season. Also up front is Brian Christie, who had a phenomenal rookie season making the NAHL All-Rookie 2nd team. He not only posted 58 points, but was a team-high +38, which was tops in the entire NAHL.
Along the blueline Chris Bond and Cory Ramsey are among the key returners to the line-up. Both are very good defensively, but will have to also create offense this season, especially on the power play. In goal, the RoadRunners return third-year netminder Eric Rohrkemper. The last two seasons has seen Rohrkemper put up an eye-popping combined record of 32-5-5 and will get the starting call this year. Langer said he is also excited about new forward Ben Bahe from Hill-Murray High School in Minnesota and goaltender Josh Hillegas, who started the season in the NAHL last year with Texas.
There is no question that when it comes to regular season success and dominance along with placing players in college, the Topeka RoadRunners may do it as good as anyone else in the NAHL. The only remaining step is figuring out how to clear the final hurdle in winning a Robertson Cup title in 2011-12.
Next up in the NAHL’s 28 teams in 28 days series, the Traverse City North Stars.