Jr. Wildcats a model of consistency within IHAAZ program
The AZ Jr. Wildcats in Tucson are poised to thrive in the upcoming IHAAZ season.
The Jr. Wildcats have managed to build successful programs from the rec level up to the travel level throughout its time in the league.
The presence of the Tucson Indoor Sports Center has been vital in helping young players learn to skate, play hockey and improve their skills.
“We’re fortunate we have an indoor rink to practice and play in year-round. We’re not at the mercy of the weather, which limits the time they have available to practice,” said Erik Dahl, the president of the Jr. Wildcats.
As a result, the rec program is thriving.
“We are fortunate that the rec program continues to grow every season and that has been responsible for developing a lot of new players who have an interest in travel level teams,” Dahl said. “We had to cut a couple of players (for this year) but we tried to give as many kids as possible a spot on the team.”
The rise in popularity of roller hockey has resulted in the Jr. Wildcats fielding six teams this coming IHAAZ season, including a couple of 8U teams. There are two 12U teams as well in the program this year.
The Jr. Wildcats will also have a 10U team, a 14U team and a Midget team.
The fact that ice hockey is gradually becoming a bigger deal in the area doesn’t hurt either with opening the door for young athletes to try out roller hockey as well.
“Ice hockey continues to grow in Tucson thanks in large part to the Tucson Roadrunners AHL team and the support of the Coyotes organization,” Dahl said. “We’ve seen more crossover between ice and inline every season because of it. It’s a great thing for us.”
The Jr. Wildcats will go into the new year moving forward from several changes in the offseason, according to Dahl.
Jeremy Hiltabidel, who had been coaching some of the Wildcat teams last year despite moving to Phoenix before the start of last year, is no longer coaching teams.
David Sticker has had to cut back on his involvement in the program and is no longer available to help coach at practices. He has played a key role in bringing the program to where it is today and plans to still coach the older teams in the tournament when he is available to do so.
Josh Smith is back, though, and will continue to work primarily with the older teams.
“Josh has brought a much more technical style of coaching, which the kids have really responded to,” Dahl said. “Our first years were spent focusing on conditioning and endurance, but now Josh has introduced more strategic thinking to the table as well.”
The younger teams will have the same coaches as last season, that being Kurt Buetel and Mike Richardson. Brian Hillegonds is also back to coach the younger teams and brings a wealth of coaching experience to the table with him.
Besides a cast of solid coaches in place, the Jr. Wildcats also capitalize on their resources to help build their program.
As Dahl mentioned before, the indoor rink has been a huge plus. More practice time means better hockey players.
“The majority of our travel players play hockey year-round and for many, they do inline along with ice during the season,” Dahl said. “With that much skate time, it’s hard for them not to improve.”
And it leads to added confidence. In the end, the players learn what it takes to be a team.
“Seeing each team gel and truly become a team is always exciting to watch,” Dahl said. “We have great supportive parents and we always enjoy hearing how much fun they and their kids have at these IHAAZ tournaments.”
— Brian Lester
(Jan. 7, 2020)