The road to the Robertson Cup goes through St. Louis.
Since wrestling the Cup away from the three-time champion Texas Tornado in the 2006-07 season, the St. Louis Bandits have hoisted the coveted prize a total of three years in a row. As the incumbent custodians of the Robertson Cup, it\’s fair to say that whoever wants it will have to take it from them, just as they did that season by eliminating the Tornado in 5 games in the South Division Finals.
Prior to landing in Chesterfield, MO, the Bandits labored in Texarkana, AR at the Four States Fairgrounds. They were a team that always played in the shadow of the powerful Tornado club, finishing in second place but being ousted from the playoffs in the division finals two years in a row before finally getting the Tornado monkey off their back. In 2006-07, they won the Robertson Cup Tournament in Fairbanks, The following season they hosted the tournament and repeated as Cup Champions, then pulled off the three-peat last season by fending off the upstart Wenatchee Wild 3-2 in overtime in Mason City, Iowa.
In the RoadRunners first season in Santa Fe, it was the Texarkana Bandits who ended the \’Runners season with a 3-1 series victory. The \’Runners missed the playoffs the following season, the only time in their history to do so. In 2006-07, Texas pulled out a Game 5 win over the \’Runners before finally succumbing to the newly relocated St. Louis Bandits. The following year, the RoadRunners set up shop in Topeka (drawing more fans in their first season than they had in the previous three seasons in Santa Fe COMBINED) and had a magical run to the Robertson Cup Tournament. Topeka won their first two games but a loss to St. Louis forced them to play another game, which they dropped to Mahoning Valley, ending the season.
In 2008-09, Topeka dominated St. Louis (going 7-4-1 head-to-head) during the regular season and faced them head-on in the Division Finals, but once again, St. Louis prevailed 3 games to 1 and proceeded to win the Robertson Cup for the third straight year.
Which brings us to this season. The RoadRunners claimed their second regular season division title in three years, finishing just two points ahead of St. Louis. Last season, St. Louis finished two points ahead of Topeka. The RoadRunners went 4-4-1 against the Bandits in the regular season, splitting a four game set right down the middle in March. This year, Topeka has home ice advantage, with Games 1,2 and 5 if necessary slated for Landon Arena. This years RoadRunner squad has proven to be the most offensively dangerous club yet, scoring a team record 254 goals. Forward Erik Higby (80 pts) was the first RoadRunner to ever lead the NAHL in scoring. Cole Schneider was on pace to score 50 goals but missed 23 games after an injury suffered by a slash in Texas and still ended up with 25. Latecomer Justin Kovacs scored 14 but at a clip that could have netted him 40 in a 58-game season. Add Michael Hill\’s 31 goals and Alec Hagaman\’s 29 and you\’ve got some guys that can do some damage offensively.
Defensively, the RoadRunners saw tremendous growth over the course of the season. Kevin Ryan began the year already committed to Niagara University. Rookie Nickolas Gatt grew leaps and bounds, attracting the attention of the University of Alabama-Huntsville Chargers where he will play next season. Veterans Bob Marx, Jacob Poe and Jeff Burke have elevated their play, while Chris Bond has steadily matured into a solid blueliner who makes smart decisions on the ice. Cory Ramsey has demonstrated his versatility by playing forward when called upon as well.
The RoadRunners have three capable netminders. Evan Karambelas finished 4th in the NAHL (22-4-1) with agoals against average of 2.29. Eric Rohrkemper finished 13-2-2 and Cooper Frederick posted a 9-3-2 record. Topeka allows the fewest shots on goal (21.81). To give a yardstick as to how impressive that number is, the league average is 31.3, and the team with the second fewest shots allowed (St. Louis) is at 25.9 per game.
The St. Louis Bandits are certainly loaded with talent as well. The games between Topeka and St. Louis have been hard fought battles, and in a short series every nuance is magnified. The best-of-five series begins Thursday night in Topeka, and being the only game in the NAHL that night, all eyes will be on Landon Arena in what many consider to be the leagues marquee matchup.