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The Next Level

By Ross Forman, 01/17/24, 12:00PM CST


Chicago-area players continue to play after high school

The El Paso Rhinos finished their 2023 slate of the 2023-24 season with a 4-1 road win over the Long Beach Sharks to improve their NA3HL record to 18-6-1 and, with 37 points, they stand 6 points behind the New Mexico Ice Wolves for first-place in the South Division.

The win was one of the best games this season for Rocco Romita, who had an assist on the team’s first goal of the game and, in the second period, scored what proved to be his first game-winning goal, assisted by Austin Renaldo and Zach Ware.

“Playing at a high level has always been a dream of mine,” said Romita, 18, who lives in Naperville and formerly played for the Neuqua Valley varsity team and the CSDHL Sabres U18.

“Playing hockey has taught me many great life lessons. I had made great friendships and have great childhood memories playing this great sport. I’m blessed to have the support of my family and friends. Most importantly, I have learned that hockey is just like life. The more passion and hard work you put into it, the more likely you’re able to achieve your goals. So, if there is any advice I can share it would be, don’t quit when times get tough and play every shift like that shift will determine the outcome of the game. Also, work hard at practice, don’t just show up. Be a player your teammates can depend on and don’t forget to have fun.”

A forward who often plays on his off-wing, Romita is one of many former Illinois hockey players who have continued the game at the next level, be it on ACHA club, juniors, or elsewhere.

High school graduation does not have to be the end of anyone’s hockey career. Opportunities are everywhere – across America and truly around the world.

The El Paso Rhinos, for instance, skate in Tier II junior North American Hockey League (NAHL) – and one of its players is left-handed shooting forward Kyle Arias from Orland Park, who played for the Vikings. The organization also has a Tier III team that joined the North American 3 Hockey League for the 2020–21 season – and that’s where Romita now calls home.

Tyler Kolb, 19, skated for the co-op Libertyville IceCats and graduated from Vernon Hills High School in 2023. He now is a freshman at Michigan State University, playing for the Spartans’ D2 ACHA team.

“I have had a pretty good start (this season) and (my) line has been progressing pretty well,” said Kolb, a right wing who skates with brothers Matt and Josh Melachrinakis, of Arlington Heights, who both formerly played for the co-op PREP team.

“It’s pretty cool having a few (former) Illinois high school hockey kids all playing well on a line at MSU.”

The Spartans open their 2024 season with back-to-back games against Roosevelt University on Jan. 5-6, with a 14-3 record and wins in their last 11 games. Michigan State’s offense features the three Illinois linemates among the top five scorers on the team.

“Playing in college is an awesome experience; (it) gets you close with a lot of guys so I think it is worth it given the opportunity and it also comes with other positives that a junior team (may) reach out,” Kolb said. “(Playing in Illinois) got me ready for the speed of the game that is played (in college). My head coach at Libertyville, Libor Ustrnul, did a great job of building good habits for me that he knew would not only help us win last year, but also help me in the future.”

Kolb, who skated for the Ice Dogs before high school, was an all-state player and the MVP of the annual all-state game. His high school highlight was beating arch-rival Carmel Catholic twice in front of a standing-room-only crowd and scoring three times in those games.

“Don’t look forward too much because you only get to play high school once, but one of the keys to moving up is playing with your head up which a lot of kids don’t do or don’t do well.”

Max Pasiennik, who was an all-state player at Saint Ignatius before graduating in 2020, is now playing in the ACHA, as a member of the University of Colorado D1 team.

“High School hockey in Illinois gave me great opportunities to be a leader/captain and develop my leadership skills,” said Pasiennik, 21, who lives in Chicago when not at school in Boulder. “On the ice, it was a lot of fun and a privilege to represent my school. I think it’s easier to create bonds and memories with teammates when you play for your school and have the same teammates for multiple years. Playing in tournaments and having rivalries elevated the level of competition.

“The ACHA has been a great experience for me. Playing in D1 ACHA is very competitive with a lot of traveling. We play in the WCHL, considered the best conference in the ACHA. Some of the most fun with club hockey is traveling and getting to visit other schools. In the past few years we’ve traveled to Arizona, Arizona State, San Diego State, Utah, UNLV, Oregon and more. The on-ice competition is at a very high level while maintaining a good life/school balance.”

Pasiennik, who plays center or left wing, also formerly skated for the Chicago Jets, CYA and Milwaukee Jr. Admirals. He was the Chicago Catholic Hockey League’s Most Outstanding Player.

“My advice (for high school players) would be to continue your hockey career as long as possible if you still have a passion for the game,” he said. “With my experience in the ACHA, I could not recommend it more. At any level, playing for your school is a blast and most teams are easy to contact.”

The American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) has three men’s and two women’s divisions and includes about 450 teams across the U.S. and Canada.

ACHA Men’s Division 1 boasts about 70 teams and some play exhibition games against NCAA Division I and Division III schools. Minot State University is the defending national champion.

ACHA released the regional rankings for men’s Division II clubs in mid-November and Indiana University was named the No. 1 team in the Southeast. IU (17-3) has since slipped to No. 2 behind Florida Gulf Coast University (17-2-1).

The Hoosiers are one of many ACHA teams that lean on Illinois natives for their success. The IU rosters features Andrew Chambers and Davis Jegers (Stevenson), Jack Hawkins and Nick Castracane (New Trier), Will Kiecker and Ithan DeLorenzo (Naperville), Ryan Costin (Lake Forest Academy), Will Gerami (Saint Ignatius), Sammy Bilis (Glenbrook North) and Rajko Marich (Evanston).

Indiana won 9 of its final 10 games in 2023, including convincing road wins against DePaul University at Johnny’s Ice House in Chicago – with a Blue Demons roster filled with former Chicago-area players.

Liberty University is the defending Women’s ACHA Division I national champion.

Menami Gordon is a right-handed shooting forward for the University of Michigan Women’s Division I ACHA team and her first goal this season, in the team’s first game of the season, was the game-winner against Concordia University – Ann Arbor.

She celebrated the W with fellow Illinois native Tess Buchsbaum, a teammate who plays defense – just as the two celebrated together in 2022 when they won the Illinois High School Hockey Girls State Championship while playing for the co-op CCHS Romans.

The Wolverines are next in action on Sunday, January 14, against the University of Rhode Island at famed Yost Ice Arena.

Adam Kaczmarek was in net this past March at the United Center when York played in its first-ever Illinois High School Hockey State Championship Game. The Dukes lost to New Trier Green, but that wasn’t the end of Kaczmarek’s career.

He’s had the wildest, and perhaps, furthest ride to continue playing.

Kaczmarek plays for a junior team in Poland, where he is the lone American on the team. The team’s other goalie is from Canada.

Playing in Poland has been a cool experience, he said, “and I know I won’t regret this (decision) later in my life.”

Kaczmarek played two seasons of varsity hockey at York. He now practices daily in Poland and has two games per weekend.

“It’s a real cool team with a bunch of different languages spoken on the team,” he said.

Kaczmarek said the level of play is “very solid” and his Illinois experience helped his international adventure. He added that the Polish league is “a good deal better” than the Scholastic Hockey League. “We’d easily beat any team in the SHL,” he said. “It’s a different style of play (in Poland), not too physical, more skill.

“It’s a solid league. I do (face) some good shots. Some guys have lasers, a professional level shot.”

Kaczmarek said the Polish season could end in late-January, or in March, depending on the team’s run in the playoffs.

“It’s been a crazy experience playing in Poland. I can’t say there’s been one highlight so far. I’m just grateful that I’m still playing hockey,” he said.

He wants to play at the junior level in the U.S. next season, then in college.