A Team Built for the Postseason: Rhinos Go Back-to-Back

by Brian Lester

Originally published on USAJuniorHockey.com

Photo by Manny Brizuela) 

El PASO, TX -- Winning back-to-back Western States Hockey League championships is no small accomplishment.

But the El Paso Rhinos carved out a special place in league history last month, winning their second consecutive title and fourth overall in franchise history.

“It’s great for the players,” El Paso head coach Cory Herman said. “We never had that one big scoring threat this year, but we had a group of guys that bought into the system and went out every night and did their job. They played their best hockey when it counted the most.”

The Rhinos won the title with a 2-0 win over the Ogden Mustangs out in Utah, capping an unbeaten run through the postseason to hoist their third Thorne Cup since 2014.

Martin Dubusky scored the first goal of the game and Max Kamper punched in the final goal in the closing minutes of action.

The fact that El Paso prevailed is hardly a surprise. This is a team Herman believed was built to win in the postseason. Never mind that it was essentially a new team.

(Photo by Manny Brizuela)

“We only brought back a handful of guys, but this team was built for the playoffs,” Herman said. “They blocked a ton of shots and did the little things right. We didn’t rely on one guy to do all the scoring. Everyone pitched in and did their jobs.”

The Rhinos were indeed balanced. In the regular season, 11 players scored at least 12 goals. Six finished with 20 or more.

“Every year we reload and always strive to win a championship,” Herman said. “Our guys had a great work ethic and we were a score-by-committee type of team. I felt like if we peaked at the right time, we had a good chance of winning it all.”

The foundation for the Rhinos’ success was laid in those intense practices that often rivaled the intensity of a game.

“It all starts in practice for us,” Herman said. “We put in a lot of work and always practiced hard. We really expect a lot out of our guys. We kind of made it to where the games are easy compared to practice.”

But for the Rhinos, the success goes beyond what takes place on the ice. It’s they they enter the offseason with another championship and continue to consistently win year in and year out.

“We have one of the best staffs in junior hockey. Everyone plays a part in our success,” Herman said. “Our staff works really hard and takes pride in the Rhinos. They work hard so that we can be successful.”

El Paso won the Mid-Western Division title again this season and defeated the Oklahoma City Blazers for the divisional playoff title. They beat the Blazers again in the semifinals of the Thorne Cup, winning 7-2.

The pressure that comes with playing for one of the best franchises in the league didn’t seem to faze the players. They embraced it.

“There is a lot of pressure to play in El Paso, but we are fortunate to have such great fans. The atmosphere they get to play in helps kids be at their best. There is a lot of pressure to go back-to-back, but our guys handled it well.”

Their refusal to lose made all the difference.

“They wouldn’t lose,” Herman said. “They laid it all on the line and basically outworked everyone. I’m real proud of how we came together as a team.”

Though the Rhinos planned to take time to celebrate their championship this offseason, next year is already on the mind of Herman.

“On the bus trip back from Ogden we started working on recruiting,” Herman said. “Everything is so competitive now in junior hockey. Everyone is going after the same players. It’s all about trying to keep up.”