– NAHL.com –

Heading into last season, the Texas Tornado knew that as the hosts, they would be a part of the Robertson Cup. With that in mind, head coach and general manager Tony Curtale knew that he had to build a team that could not only compete, but have chance to win the coveted prize that crowns the National Champion of the NAHL and Tier II junior hockey in the United States.

On paper, a couple things were working in the team’s favor to begin their quest. First was the experience of their head coach, Curtale, who not is only the all-time NAHL wins leader with over 550 in his career, but he had also been a part of six previous Robertson Cup-winning teams (2 with Springfield and 4 with Texas). Second, the Tornado had a strong returning core returning to the team with the likes of veterans like NCAA Division I recruits Jack Prince and Taylor Herndon.

However, Championships are not won on paper and the Tornado faced plenty of challenges as they began the 2011-12 season. “It was a challenge because we lost our top goalie, our top two defensemen and two of our top forwards to other leagues. Those were players that we had planned on having for the season, but they left last minute so we were behind the 8-ball a little bit,” said Curtale. On a positive note, it gave some players that normally would have been in a supporting role an opportunity to play and gain experience, something that Curtale says was essential in winning a championship. “I think a lot of our players got put into the mix right away and learned how to play and win dealing with adversity, which is something we faced all season long with one of the tough seasons I can remember because of injuries. We were banged up most of the year, but it gave everyone a chance to play and gain experience.”

Adversity is something that the Tornado had to go through again in the playoffs. After being swept by Topeka in the South Semi-Finals, the Tornado then had to wait three weeks before playing in the Robertson Cup. Again, the Tornado would face more adversity in the tournament as they would advance to the semi-finals on a tie-breaker. However, once in the semi-finals, the Tornado played their best hockey of the season. “I think especially once we got to the semi-finals guys realized that mentally, they had to put themselves in another gear and since everyone had a chance to play throughout the entire season, they had more than enough experience to do so. For those last couple of games I thought we were able to roll four lines and really play our best hockey as the games progressed.”

The Tornado edged out the defending Champion Fairbanks Ice Dogs in overtime in the semi-finals and then in the National Championship game, the Tornado would again need overtime to defeat the St. Louis Bandits on a goal from Justin Greenberg, who will return to the team in 2012-13. “A lot of it is a gut feeling when you are recruiting players, but mental toughness plays as much of a part in it than anything. Yes, it helped we were healthy and had great depth and goaltending, but when you are playing back-to-back overtime games with a National Championship and your season on the line, you find out a lot about your players and their mental make-up and focus.”

So having won their fifth Robertson Cup Championship in the last 12 years, the Tornado begin their defense of their title in 2012-13 with the proverbial target on their backs. “I think winning is great and it never gets old, but first and foremost we begin each season with wanting to give our players an opportunity to play hockey at a high level and also great life experience.”

“We lost quite a few talented players, so there will be some rebuilding there, but we feel like we have one of our best recruiting classes in the last 7-8 years skill wise and we are also returning our starting goalie in Hunter Leisner, who really stepped up in the Robertson Cup, so we have a pretty good foundation built,” said Curtale. “We needed a little bit of everything, so we will see what some of new guys can do.”

Besides Leisner, Curtale indicated that up front returning players like Drew Mayer, Jackson Leef and Justin Greenberg will be looked up to generate offense. The recent addition of CJ Reuschlein from Aberdeen last week, should also bolster the offense. On the blueline Michael Hoy, Nick Neville and Alex Temby return with a year experience under their belt. “I think all of these players are NCAA Division I college guys so hopefully they can have great seasons and earn those commitments.”

Next up in the NAHL 24 Teams in 24 Days series, the Springfield Jr. Blues.