Armed with a new head coach in veteran bench boss Paul Baxter and supporting coaching staff, the Wildcats made a bold move from the start of the 2011-12 season by fielding the youngest team in the North American Hockey League. The ‘Cats were coming off making the playoffs in three of the last four seasons and optimism was high to try and make another run, but the unknown would be how their youth would factor into competing in the South Division.
“I think anyone from our organization, including myself would say that things didn’t go as well as we would have liked them to,” said head coach Paul Baxter. “From the time I took over, our focus was to find players that could develop into good collegiate and potentially professional prospects, so from that standpoint, we were very pleased at some of the talent we had during the season,” said Baxter. “However, we got started a little late in the game in regards to recruitment and it was a little bit of a challenging process to put all the pieces together and get the right chemistry as the season progressed.”
One of the Wildcats staples throughout their time in the NAHL has been traditionally getting off to fast starts, including winning the NAHL Showcase back in 2010, when they went undefeated and won all four games at the annual event. However, 2011 was a different story as the Wildcats struggled out of the gate with just one win in their first five regular season games. The month of October was equally unkind as the ‘Cats won just once in nine games.
The Wildcats would finish the season with a 20-35-5 record, unable to get to the .500 mark during the season and would ultimately finish in 6th place in the seven-team South Division. However, they did manage to move some players onto the next level with NCAA Division I commitments to the likes of budding superstar Dennis Kravchenko and veteran defenseman Brad Shumway. They also managed to develop and provide valuable playing experience to over a half dozen 16 and 17-year-old rookies.
Now with a full season of recruiting behind them, Baxter believes he has the pieces in place to once again make the Wildcats a contender in the South Division. “I think we as a staff are very excited this year that we have had a full year to learn from our mistakes last year and try and put together a team that will be competitive in the South Division,” said Baxter. “I want them to have a sharp learning curve because there are a lot of quality opponents that will we have to compete with on a daily basis in the South.”
Although Baxter did not go into details regarding who exactly would be on the 2012-13 roster, he was very specific in regards to the type of player he wants on the team. “The biggest thing was to have returning and veteran players that had a sense of urgency regarding our success that can also set an example and create a positive culture on and off the ice,” said Baxter. “I feel really good about how we are changing the culture to get the right kind of player in here that is going to dedicate himself both on and off the ice.”
Baxter indicated that 4-6 players that are slated to be on the Wildcats roster for the 2012-13 season have just recently committed to NCAA Division I schools. He also said that there will be at least 4-5 veteran players with junior and NAHL experience, something he said will go a long way in determining the team’s success for the 2012-13 season.
“The players that are coming to Wichita Falls this upcoming season are going to be here because they want to be here and want to get better and develop,” said Baxter. “We were adamant about tendering and signing players from the top programs who also knew and understood how to win. They have the type of character that wants to win and be successful, and they understand the culture it takes to be a champion because they already have gone through it.”
“Short term, the players will have to understand and commit to the mental preparation it takes to be a consistent winner and have success in the NAHL,” said Baxter. “Long term, we want players with talent and character that want to develop and work to achieve an opportunity to play hockey at a higher level during their time with the Wildcats. A combination of those things gives us a great chance of success.”
Next up in the NAHL 24 Teams in 24 Days series, the Wenatchee Wild.