EL PASO, TX -- El Paso is the Thorne Cup champion for the third time in franchise history.
The Rhinos won the WSHL’s ultimate prize on April 15 on their home ice, in front of their raucous fans, with a thrilling and hard-fought 3-2 win over the Ogden Mustangs. The Mustangs came into the game unbeaten in Thorne Cup play.
El Paso, meanwhile, because of their struggles in the round-robin portion of the tournament, were in survive and advance mode throughout its run to the Thorne Cup.
“It’s awesome,” said head coach Cory Herman. “This one might be the sweetest, just because our backs were against the wall and we had been fighting for our lives since Thursday.”
Winning the championship in front of the hometown fans made the title that much sweeter.
“Anytime you can win one at home, it’s awesome,” Herman said. “Our fans are unbelievable. They have been great all year. We’re fortunate to have so many fans at our games.”
The Rhinos have a tradition of success and they have long been one of the best teams in the league. This latest title only further cements that reputation.
“Your goal is to have a winning tradition and move players on,” Herman said. “Anytime you can hang up a banner, it’s a great feeling. It’s why we play the game.”
Nothing came easy for the Rhinos in the Thorne Cup tournament.
Having already lost two games in round-robin play, falling to both Long Beach and Oklahoma City, they desperately needed a win over the Utah Outliers. They earned it with a 4-3 victory. Four different players scored, with Chaseton Sare, Leeam Tivers, Austin Simpson and Jakob Kranabetter all scoring goals in the impressive win.
Herman felt like his team found its stride again after facing elimination in the first two games of the Thorne Cup.
“We got that chip on our shoulder back after those first two losses,” Herman said. “When we won, we got our mojo back and had that here we go mentality. I felt like we started playing our game again. We didn’t do that in the first two games.”
That win set the stage for a showdown with fellow league power Idaho, and El Paso won in stunning fashion, blanking the Ice Cats, 4-0, to advance to the final against Ogden.
Behind a goal and assist from both Justin-Cole Dubecky and Tivers, the Rhinos grinded out the win. Nikita Pintusov scored the game winner.
“We knew we had to bring our A game,” Herman said. “Ogden has a great team. It could have gone either way. We did a lot of preparation for that game and it paid off.”
El Paso knew going into this season it had an opportunity to do something special. It lived up to its expectations. Herman said the keys to success were the effort and preparation that went into the season itself.
“I thought we had a decent team and had a chance to go far in the playoffs,” Herman said.
“As the season went on, I saw how much character this team had and how hard it worked. We knew if we outworked other teams, we could be successful.”
Winning a championship brings added attention to the program. For an organization that is already successful, the value of this title is difficult to put a price tag on.
“We put in a lot of work in the off-season to build a winning tradition here. It means a lot to be a championship team in this league.”
El Paso now heads into the offseason, eager to build on what it has accomplished. In fact, the Rhinos were right back to work shortly after winning the championship.
“We were back in the office Monday morning working on recruiting and working on building the team for next year,” Herman said.