Prep hockey season preview: New faces in coaching spots

Three Kenai Peninsula hockey teams. Three new head coaches.

There’s a new order hitting the rinks this season at the high school level, and the three North Star Conference peninsula teams are each getting a new boss man on the bench.

Jacob Newton takes over at Kenai Central for Michael Tilly. Tilly held the Kardinals post for the previous three years.

Soldotna is bringing in longtime peninsula presence Indy Walton, who returns to the SoHi program after a lengthy sabbatical and takes over for Derek Urban after Urban’s three years at the helm.

Down in Homer, the Mariners will be getting their third head coach in three years with Chance Rockett after John Carlin departed in 2016 and Justin Adams left earlier this year. Rockett is a former SoHi and Homer player back in his day.

Newton, 32, is a sixth-grade math and science at K-Beach Elementary, and has spent the past few winters coaching at the Pee Wee and Bantam levels of the Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association.

Born and raised in Wisconsin, hockey has played a large role in Newton’s life since his early years. A star high school player, Newton went on to compete in the Great Lakes Hockey League, a USA Hockey Adult League, where he played a role in winning a pair of national titles.

After a 2-8-0 finish that left the Kardinals fifth in the North Star Conference in 2016, the Kenai job is Newton’s biggest yet, and he said he is ready to take the Kards to new heights.

“It’s going to be a new year at Kenai,” Newton said.

Newton spent six years in Kodiak before making the move to Kenai in 2011, and said the process of rebuilding the Kenai hockey program will be taken in small steps with an eye on the future.

“We’re going to take it one game at a time, and build our team to be everything it has the potential to be,” he said. “The big thing in hockey is, it’s all guts, no glory. We’ve got our sights set on several teams in our conference.”

A renewed recruitment effort by Newton and assistant coach Vaughn Dosko has helped bring out players. After 17 players turned out last year — not enough to field a competitive JV team – Newton said upwards of 30 have showed up this winter.

Newton hopes the addition of a JV program will help build the development of the team and competitiveness.

“My hope is having them push each other,” Newton said. “When there are high numbers, it’s a luxury for a coach to have. It’s about who’s playing the best and putting their best effort into the team.”

Newton also brings experience of working with a handful of players he has coached at the KPHA level. That familiarity is something he hopes can pay dividends.

“When it comes down to it, the kids have got to want to play for each other,” he said. “The kids that are playing for themselves are not helping the team. That’s something that kid at any level needs to know.”

Newton said a decent group of freshman has joined the team this year, which will hopefully add to the returning stars. The returning cast includes a pair of senior All-Conference forwards in Levi Mese and Jakob O’Brien. Mese was a First-Team award recipient in 2016-17, while O’Brien was an honorable mention.

Freshman Josh Tree will be getting his first full season as a starting goaltender, and has already opened eyes with sturdy goaltending at the Peninsula Ice Challenge.

SoHi welcomes in a previous Stars rival in Indy Walton, who coached at Skyview High from 1997 to 2002 before handing the reigns to Pete Iverson. Walton has 20 years of coaching hockey under his belt, including a current stint with the KPHA Under-14 team, a program that Walton has coached to a championship appearance.

Walton, a financial adviser, said the job with SoHi was born out of necessity. With Urban out as head coach, SoHi asked Walton to take the job, but with work and his KPHA post taking up his time, Walton was unable to acquiesce.

Finally, the program installed a new set of practice hours to better fit Walton’s busy schedule.

“They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he said.

Walton also has coaching stints in Utah, where he coached a prep team to the state championship.

In his playing days, Walton competed for the Lathrop Malamutes in Fairbanks, who made consecutive state tournament appearances in 1986 and 1987.

Walton made it clear that while this season is likely to be a rebuilding year with a young team that has no seniors, the future of the SoHi program is trending uphill in a hurry.

“I’m excited,” he said. “The next year or two, SoHi’s gonna be a contender.”

The Stars finished 5-4-1 in the conference last year for a third-place finish, but unloaded a talented senior class that left this year’s Stars crew playing catch up. Would be senior goalie Billy Yoder shipped off to play junior hockey in Canada, while Corey Hanson and Levi Hensley graduated in the spring. Yoder was named to the Second-Team All-Conference team last winter, and Hanson was a First-Team All-Conference defenseman. Hensley and Parker Lockwood were both named to the Second-Team All-Conference list last winter, Hensley as a defender and Lockwood as a forward.

This year, the Stars feature three juniors, nine sophomores and six freshmen on the varsity roster.

Walton said the leadership will come from a core trio of returning players. The honor of captain has been bestowed on Braxton Urban, with assistant captain roles going to Wyatt Medcoff and Galen Brantley III. Brantley was an Honorable Mention All-Conference forward in 2016.

The Stars netminding duties will fall mostly on Corbin Wirz, who is making his true varsity debut this year after sporadic time in goal last year.

Walton said assistant coach Galen Brantley Jr. has been “a huge plus” in lifting the team through its rebuilding phase. While Walton provides the on-ice teaching, Brantley Jr. provides the conditioning and dry-land work.

Chance Rockett, 26, takes on his biggest coaching job of his career in Homer, where he has given a three-year minimum commitment to the team.

Rockett takes on the task of trying to bring a team that finished 1-9-0 last season to the state playoffs. His sights are set squarely on reaching the North Star Conference championship game, which brings an automatic state berth with it.

If successful, it would be the first region championship appearance for Homer in school history.

“We wouldn’t set that goal if it wasn’t attainable,” Rockett said. “We’ve got a pretty special group.”

A Homer native, Rockett spent his youth in the town until age 13, when he began traveling around for hockey. As a goaltender, Rockett played his freshman year of high school for Soldotna, his sophomore year at West Anchorage, his junior year on a Triple A youth team in Kansas, and finally made his way back to Homer for his senior campaign. Rockett is a 2009 Homer graduate.

Rockett also saw time as a goalie at the 2006 Arctic Winter Games.

“My dream was happening,” he said.

Unfortunately, a pair of knee surgeries helped put an end to his dream. His first surgery came during his senior year, and the second shortly after.

Now, paired with assistant coach Steve Nevak in Homer, Rockett is looking to lift the Mariners program up to new heights. The coaching duo have already seen success together, as a 15-0 season at the Tier III Pee Wee level in 2014 can attest.

Rockett said the Mariners are currently three lines deep at the forward position, led by 2016 Second-Team All-Conference forward Dimitry Kuzmin. Rockett said another Second-Team star, Robby Larson, left to play junior hockey in the states.

Joining Kuzmin in the senior class is co-captain Charlie Menke, Spencer Warren, Tim Blakely and Douglas Dean.

The defensive line shifts will see freshman Phineas Weston, Menke, Dean and Blakely pair with sophomore Ethan Pitzman. Rockett added that goaltender Hunter Warren is one of the best in the North Star Conference.

“When our goalie is on,” Rockett said. “He can be one of the better goalies in the league.”

Rockett said with a wealth of individual talent, the trick is putting it together to reach a team goal.

“The level of commitment it takes is what we’re trying to bring to hockey down here,” he said. “It’s trying to set the bar at the top, and letting it trickle down.”

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