Wichita Falls finds winning formula
Read the full NAHL Weekly Release.
Mired in a six-game losing streak, the Wichita Falls Wildcats came to life last weekend with a pair of morale-building wins over the Springfield Jr. Blues.
“We needed a weekend sweep, or some kind of spark to get us on the right track,” said Wildcats head coach John Bowkus, whose team improved to 7-9-2 on the season. “Our confidence was low, the players were questioning themselves and we just weren’t getting any kind of bounces.”
The tables turned on Friday, as Wichita Falls ended its skid with a 4-3 shootout win. Chad Hudson scored two goals and an assist in regulation and one goal in the shootout, with Brett Hartung adding the other Wildcats marker. Between the pipes, goaltender Phil Graveline turned back 34 shots.
The next night, Zach Rourke recorded a hat trick, including the game-winning goal, and an assist as the Wildcats downed the Jr. Blues, 7-5. Kyle Delaurell added four assists in the victory, and Graveline again made 34 saves.
“Our overall play was better,” said Bowkus. “We were able to capitalize on some of our scoring chances and we had players finally contributing on both ends of the ice.
“It’s not that we’ve been playing that bad, we just haven’t been firing on all cylinders.”
Hudson, who was acquired recently in a trade from St. Louis, has helped the offensive cause. The 18-year-old from Coppell, Texas, scored his first points last weekend (three goals, two assists) since arriving in Wichita Falls.
“Chad hasn’t been here that long, but has fit in great with the other players,” said Bowkus. “We brought him in to put up some points and last weekend he was able to do that.”
Rourke also came out of hiding. With more time on the power play because of recent roster changes, the 18-year-old from Oxford, Mich., collected his first three goals of the season against Springfield.
“When he made the team this summer, we were hoping he would be one of our top-producing forwards, and hopefully he’ll continue to prove us right,” said Bowkus.
Air Force recruit Delaurell has been one of the Wildcats’ top forwards all season long. The 19-year-old from Mission Viejo, Calif., picked up five more assists last weekend to add to his team-leading point total (23).
“We scored more goals last weekend in a two-game series than we have all year long,” said Bowkus, “so I’m hoping that’s jumpstarted our offense.”
The coach is also hoping for improved play from his netminders, Graveline and Mike Jarboe. Both have save percentages south of .900, which will need to improve if the Wildcats have any plans of making a run in the competitive South Division.
“Our goaltending has been just average and I’m looking for either Phil or Mike to step up and get us some wins,” said Bowkus. “I still think both goalies are capable of playing better, but it goes back to confidence and when we were on that losing streak, there wasn’t a lot of confidence anywhere.”
Bowkus has been impressed with the maturation of his inexperienced defensive core, crediting assistant coach Mike Flanagan for much of their early development.
“We have some young guys back there and we’ve asked them to come in and make an impact right away,” said Bowkus, who also noted that the acquisitions of veteran defensemen Sean Coffey and Augie Hoffmann, both of whom were picked up from St. Louis, have paid immediate dividends.
Last season notwithstanding, Bowkus-led teams have a history of starting slow and finishing strong. And although not thrilled with the club’s last-place position in the South standings, the Wildcats are confident better days lie ahead.
“No one is ever happy with a record below .500, but we’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Bowkus. “The players are starting to buy in, the chemistry is getting better, and the team believes we can succeed.”
And it’s right back to work for Wichita Falls this weekend, as it heads to Topeka for a two-game set against the RoadRunners. The Wildcats have eight games left before the New Year, including six against St. Louis and Topeka, which have a combined 32-8-2 record to date.
“By far, we have one of the toughest divisions in the league and the next four weeks will be an unbelievable measuring stick for us,” said Bowkus.
Despite the slow start, the Wildcats are still getting plenty attention from Division I schools. Two players have already committed – DeLaurell and Zach Trotman (Lake Superior State University) and Bowkus expects more to follow suit in the coming months.
“We have about four other players who are getting interest right now, and as we get better and into the second half of the season, I think we’ll see some more commitments,” said the coach.
AROUND THE NAHL
ALASKA AVALANCHE: Kyle Pichler recorded three goals and two assists as the Avalanche skated to a 1-2 record against Wenatchee last weekend.
ALBERT LEA THUNDER: Mikita Feaktsistau and Anthony Brown scored for the Thunder in its 3-2 shootout loss to Alexandria on Saturday.
ALEXANDRIA BLIZZARD: Minnesota native Kyle Politz, who started the season in the USHL, recorded a goal and two assists in his first two games with the Blizzard.
ALPENA ICEDIGGERS: Goaltender Nick Graves allowed only three goals against (43 saves) in a pair of wins over Motor City last weekend.
BISMARCK BOBCATS: Goaltender Matt Grogan continues his solid play, stopping 25 shots in the Bobcats’ 3-1 win over North Iowa on Saturday. “Matt has been outstanding his last four games,” said head coach Byron Pool.
FAIRBANKS ICE DOGS: Defenseman Drew Darwitz racked up four assists in the Ice Dogs’ two-game sweep over Kenai River. The Minnesotan has recorded two assists in each of his last five games.
KENAI RIVER BROWN BEARS: Patrick Sullivan, from New York, notched the game-winning goal in the Brown Bears’ 3-2 win over Wenatchee on Tuesday.
MAHONING VALLEY PHANTOMS: Phantoms leading-scorer Brandon Saad put home two goals, along with the only goal of the shootout, in Mahoning Valley’s 6-5 triumph over the U.S. Under-17 Team on Saturday. “Brandon played great last weekend, and his goals were critical,” said head coach Bob Mainhardt. “His play all year has been excellent.”
MARQUETTE RANGERS: Goaltender Dan Sullivan turned away 63 of 69 shots as the Rangers picked up three points (win, overtime loss) against the U.S. Under-18 Team.
MOTOR CITY MACHINE: Nick Taurence recorded three assists in Motor City’s two losses to Alpena. He’s now tied for the team lead in scoring with Josh Bussell (13 points).
NORTH IOWA OUTLAWS: With two losses to Bismarck, the Outlaws have now dropped five games in a row. “The season still has plenty more left and, come the end of March, [the losing streak] may be a forgotten memory by then, but we do have to get it turned around soon,” said head coach Jeff Crouse.
OWATONNA EXPRESS: Tony McDonald put home a goal and an assist in the Express’ 6-3 victory over Alexandria on Friday. The Express has now won five games in a row.
SPRINGFIELD JR. BLUES: With two more goals in two games against Wichita Falls, Trent Frey added to his league-leading total of 17.
ST. LOUIS BANDITS: After opening the season 16-1-1, the Bandits have now lost five in a row, including two in Topeka last weekend.
TOPEKA ROADRUNNERS: Forwards Jordan George and Matt Hartmann have both committed to Bemidji State University (CHA) for next season.
TRAVERSE CITY NORTH STARS: With last weekend off, the North Stars will skate in the North Division Showcase this week against host Mahoning Valley, Alpena and St. Louis.
TEAM USA: Jeremy Morin’s overtime goal lifted the Under-18 Team to a 4-3 win over Marquette on Saturday. It was his second goal of the weekend.
WENATCHEE WILD: Duncan McKellar tallied three goals and five assists as the Wild skated to a 3-2 record last week in Alaska.
WICHITA FALLS WILDCATS: Zach Rourke recorded a hat trick in Wildcats’ 7-5 win over Springfield on Saturday, his first three goals of the season. “It took him a long time to find the back of the net,” said head coach John Bowkus. “Now that the monkey is off his back, we hope he continues to put the puck in the net.”