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2014 NATIONAL AND THORNE CUP CHAMPIONS
In true Rhino fashion, the team strung together another successful season in 2013-2014, earning a stellar 44-2-0 record. The Rhinos record-breaking season was due in large part to a truly deep roster. Veteran players like David Nelson, Andrew Bradford, Jack Strusz, Chris Wilhite, and Nick Wright returned to the team. Meanwhile, the explosive Plesa brothers line became an offensive machine for the Rhinos, posting a combined 270 points. Forwards Chad Cesarz and Austin Hoff also returned to the Rhinos from NAHL clubs, while defenseman Kalvis Ozols and forwards Eric Baldwin and Drew DePalma were acquired from the San Diego Gulls. Jan Dam, former Rhino and the newest staff member, convinced Jiri Pestuka, another Czech native, to join the El Paso roster late in the season. With these acquisitions and resignings, the Rhinos successfully solidified top-end offensive talent and productive depth.
In the crease, the Rhinos acquired two solid goaltenders to make up arguably the most powerful tandem in the WSHL. Herman’s last minute trades allowed for Seattle Totems goalie Bryce Fink to support Vay in the net. At the end of the Rhinos deep postseason run, Fink was named Thorne Cup and National Championship MVP, earning a 6-0 record in the postseason. Fellow Rhinos goaltending acquisition Adam Vay achieved similar success in the regular season, earning a 25-1-0 record and fantastic .936% save percentage. Vay also won all three of his playoff starts, making the Fink-Vay tandem undefeated in the Thorne Cup Playoffs. At season’s end, Vay was rated the number one goalie in the WSHL with the best goals against average, save percentage, and near-perfect regular season record.
Rhino staff also contributed mightily to the successful season. Garrett Poland returned as assistant coach while Jan Dam returned to help with hockey operations and European scouting. The city certainly rallied around the team’s success; the Rhinos posted 26 sellouts, good for best attendance in the entire WSHL.
As the number one team in the WSHL and arguably all of Tier III junior hockey all season long, the Rhinos took advantage of their regular season momentum by posting an undefeated playoff record (9-0-0) that earned them a trip to the 2014 Thorne Cup Championship. The Rhinos defeated the defending champion Idaho Jr. Steelheads 7-3 in front of a rowdy home crowd to clinch their second Thorne Cup in franchise history.
Less than three weeks later, the Rhinos travelled to Las Vegas, Nevada to contend for the National Championship title. After a win over the Jersey Shore Wildcats, the El Paso looked to take on the Idaho Steelheads again. This time, however, their luck ran out as the Steelheads clenched a shutout victory. After correcting their path with two wins over the Soo Firehawks, the Rhinos met the Steelheads for the third time in three weeks. A 7-3 win for El Paso meant that Idaho had been dethroned yet again. David Nelson’s hat trick and Bryce Fink’s goaltending performance helped the Rhinos earn their first National Championship Title in franchise history.
In addition to winning three title during the season, the Rhinos played in the franchise’s first outdoor game. Clad in vintage throw back jerseys, the Rhinos secured a shutout of the New Mexico Renegades at the Los Alamos Outdoor Rink. Off the ice, the Rhinos made community gains by hosting their fifth annual golf tournament as well as its inaugural Vern Jhondro Memorial Rhino Run.
At the end of the season, Drew DePalma, Chad Cesarz, Austin Hoff, and Chris Wilhite, and Jack Strusz committed to play for St. Mary’s. Dakota Beaulieu signed to Worcester State in Massachusetts and Bryce Fink committed to play at the University of Wisconsin Superior. Defenseman Kalvis Ozols joined the professional ranks as he travels home to Europe to play for the Mont-Blanc Yetis. Tom Bartel also moved on to play collegiate hockey as he signed with Hamline University.