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Loaded With Talent, KUA Boys Hockey Carries High Expectations

Kimball Union sophomore forward A.J. Greer steps around a check from Williston Northampton’s Ty Jackson during the first period of the Wildcats’ 4-2 boys hockey win at Akerstrom Arena yesterday. The Penn State-bound Greer is one of eight KUA skaters on this year’s roster to commit to a college hockey program, seven of them with NCAA Division I schools. (Valley News - Greg Fennell)

Kimball Union sophomore forward A.J. Greer steps around a check from Williston Northampton’s Ty Jackson during the first period of the Wildcats’ 4-2 boys hockey win at Akerstrom Arena yesterday. The Penn State-bound Greer is one of eight KUA skaters on this year’s roster to commit to a college hockey program, seven of them with NCAA Division I schools. (Valley News - Greg Fennell) Purchase photo reprints »

Meriden — Now they’ve gone and done it.

Winning a second small-school New England Prep School Ice Hockey Association championship in three years is simply the Kimball Union Academy boys’ foundation. Readying for what could be a momentous 2012-13 campaign, the Wildcats have built the walls and floors with a roster of 16 seniors, a group that will have 10 athletes already committed to futures with college programs by Christmas.

Such a pedigree ensures pressure, expectation and a big orange-and-black bull’s-eye every time they hit the ice this year.

“We’ve been playing together, a couple of us have, since we were 7 years old, so we know each other,” senior co-captain Doyle Somerby said after KUA outlasted Williston Northampton, 4-2, to win yesterday’s season opener at Akerstrom Arena. “The chemistry’s great. We want that bull’s-eye; we want to be the best. And we want everybody’s best to get there.”

Kimball Union has been one of New England’s top squads of late. But in New England prep school circles, there’s the best … and then there’s the best.

Three years ago, the NEPSIHA changed the way it structured its league, essentially putting all of the more than 60 hockey schools under its charge into one division. Using a complex rating system, the top eight squads in the rankings — regardless of school size — make the Elite Eight tournament at season’s end. The next eight big and small schools have their own tourneys as well.

Having won the small-school title twice, the Wildcats are hunting a bigger bear this year. Recognizing recent history as well as what the future holds for nearly half of the KUA roster, Hockey Night in Boston — the 40-year-old, North Andover, Mass.-based prep showcase organization — recently tapped the Wildcats as the team to beat in New England as the prep season begins.

“I think a lot of hockey people saw the number of commitments we had and assumed that a team with all of these commitments was going to be No. 1,” second-year Kimball Union head coach Mike Levine said. “It’s a good and a bad thing. It’s a good thing because it’s a lot of publicity for the school, the program, the kids. It’s a bad thing, I guess, because there’s a lot of expectation, a lot of pressure, for these kids.

“But on the flip side, it’s a good thing because they’re going to learn how to deal with adversity. And they’re going to get everyone’s best night in and night out. That’s something that should be embraced.”

Somerby, a 6-foot-5 man-mountain from Marblehead, Mass., stands tallest among the Wildcats. In addition to a future that will continue with legendary coach Jack Parker at Boston University next fall, the blueliner also heard his name called by the New York Islanders in the fifth round of last year’s NHL draft.

It gets better. Four of Somerby’s teammates — seniors Casey Miller (Massachusetts), Nick Roberto (Maine) and Niko Rufo (Providence) along with junior Joey Dudek (Boston College) — have committed to Hockey East schools. Senior Gregg Burmaster will go to St. Lawrence in 2013; sophomore A.J. Greer has already given his assent to the new D-I program at Penn State. Defenseman Connor Evangelista will join D-III powerhouse Norwich next year, and two other Wildcats, Alex Carle — younger brother of Tampa Bay Lightning forward Matt Carle — and Jonathan Charbonneau are still sifting D-I options.

No one appreciates the depth of KUA’s talent more than the coach.

“With the dynamic of hockey the way it is today, all of these kids had options to leave at the end of last year, whether it was junior hockey, midget hockey, et cetera, and all of them decided to come back to KUA,” Levine said. “They believe in the community, they believe in the school and they believe in what’s going on here. And that’s special.”

Much of the credit for getting to this point belongs to Ryan Miller, Levine’s predecessor and good friend, who has since moved on to coach hockey at Indiana’s Culver Military Academy. Miller stuck Kimball Union’s nose into recruiting places heretofore silent to the Meriden school’s entreaties; Levine has followed suit, and the Wildcats have sailed through the change.

“It’s a challenge, because kids have more avenues now to play hockey than they did 10 years ago,” Levine said. “You have to sell yourself and sell your program, because there are so many options. Ryan gets all the credit in the world. The program is where it is today because of Ryan; I don’t hold any qualms about that. … The culture is established here and the program is the way it is because Ryan worked so tirelessly.”

Now it’s up to the Wildcats to follow through on the ice. They can expect plenty of challenges of the like Williston Northampton supplied yesterday.

The visiting Wildcats twice held one-goal leads courtesy of scores from senior Jean-Gabriel Lacombe in the first period and freshman Cam Kagan in the second. Roberto answered the first for KUA, Charbonneau grabbed the second and senior defenseman Brandon Cole put the hosts ahead to stay with a shorthanded tally with 6:08 left in the middle stanza.

Even with senior Brendan White drilling a power-play one-timer for a two-goal lead three minutes into the third, Kimball Union never held a position of comfort. Some of that belonged to the 42-save goaltending of Williston senior Tim Keegan. Some of it also belonged to a KUA squad that drew seven minor penalties and a misconduct.

“We took too many penalties, myself included, and that’s not acceptable,” Somerby said. “I thought we played well. We dominated them a little bit; we just couldn’t put the puck in the net. It’s something we’ll take care of in practice next week.”

It’s lesson No. 1 on the cost of doing business as No. 1.

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” said Kimball Union assistant coach and former Hanover High two-sport star Woody Redpath. “We know each day that a team’s going to come with their best. That will help us, because we can’t take a night off.”

Ice Chips: KUA did lose one player of note from last year — defenseman Johnny McCloud, who would have been a sophomore, instead departed for the U.S. National Developmental Program in Michigan. He is skating for the USNDP’s under-17 squad this season. … Dudek, the son of one-time Plymouth State football star and Heisman Trophy candidate Joe Dudek, transferred to KUA from Derry’s Pinkerton Academy over the summer. … Kimball Union outshot Williston 46-16. Senior Eric Bogart made 14 saves in the KUA net. … The Wildcats’ roster includes Meriden’s Jack Doherty, the sophomore son of Kimball Union athletic director Mike Doherty. The younger Doherty is recovering from a broken foot sustained during soccer season, but he’s expected to resume skating within the week.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.