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It’s a long way to the top


GruenesHockey2

On March 14, first-year goaltender Saxton Soley was named to the CCM Division III All-America West Region second team. | Evan Gruenes

This time last year, first-year goalie Saxton Soley was fighting to keep his hockey career alive.

After two unproductive, gameless stints at the junior-hockey ranks, Soley found himself back home in Eau Claire, Wis. playing pickup hockey in local beer leagues. All he had heard from his junior coaches was that he wasn’t up to snuff, that he wasn’t what they were looking for in a goaltender.

Look at him now.

MIAC Co-Player of the Year. Second-team All-American.

“Adversity is what I thrive off of,” Soley said. “It’s what has made me better. I always think of those moments where coaches told me I wasn’t good enough and use it as motivation to consistently get better.”

On March 14, Soley became the fourth St. John’s goaltender to receive All-America honors, the first since Adam Hanna in 2006. He is also the only first-year in history to be named MIAC Player of the Year.

But his rise to collegiate-hockey stardom did not come without its challenges. After high school, Soley was drafted by the North American Hockey Leagues’s Odessa Jackalopes, but right before the team’s first game, he was released, just two months after he arrived. Soon after that, Soley offered a chance to play with the Green Bay Ramblers of the United States Hockey League, but his time there was also short lived, lasting just three months.

Soley has endured his fair share of adversity despite the limited chances he’s had to showcase his talents. While it’s fair to say that Soley’s emergence came as a shock to most Johnnie fans, according to him, he was always aware of his potential for greatness.

“I knew that I had it in me to play at a higher level,” the SJU All-American said. “I just needed the opportunity to show it, and Coach Schueller gave me that chance.”

But before the start of the season, St. John’s head coach and 2013 MIAC Coach of the Year Doug Schueller didn’t even know who his starting goaltender was going to be. Initially, he had three viable options.

Senior J.D. Wells was returning after leading the team into the 2012 MIAC postseason tournament with a late-season run of strong performances. Junior Mitch Thompson was a Division I transfer from the University of Wisconsin and a former All-State selection in high school.

And then there was the first-year, Soley, who despite a rocky career in juniors was the first goaltender in Wisconsin high school hockey history to capture the prestigious Mr. Hockey award.

For Schueller, the starter was going to be whoever impressed him the most.

“Luckily for us, and luckily for Saxton, it ended up being him,” Schueller said. “We felt that he had a strong first half of the season, and we were secure with him in the net. I was confident that one of our three goaltenders was going to emerge as the guy we would go with, and Saxton was that guy for us this season.”

In his first year with the team, Soley helped lead the Johnnies to their first appearance in the NCAA tournament since 2005. He also set a new St. John’s record for first-year goaltenders with 15 wins, 10 of which came in his final 13 starts of the season. In 14 MIAC appearances (13 starts), Soley led the conference in save percentage (.945), goals-against average (1.33) and winning percentage (9-3-1 record).

“He’s a definitely a gamer,” said Wells, who started 11 games between the pipes for the Johnnies in 2011-12. “When he’s out on the ice, he’ll do whatever it takes to win.”

Like Soley, Wells was thrust into a starting role last season after putting in a string of solid performances, a run which helped propel the Johnnies into the MIAC playoffs. However, Wells’ solid play saw then-senior goalie Tony Civello spend the rest of the year on the bench.

“It was sort of the opposite situation for me this year,” Wells said. “Of course I wanted to be out there playing, but the team was winning with Saxton in there. I was happy about that.”

Soley acknowledges how helpful his fellow goaltenders have been in his development as the SJU starter.

“After every period, J.D. would come over and give me a tap on the helmet, tell me what I was doing well,” he said. “Both he and Mitch were very supportive of me.”

The Johnnies will continue to support their first-year All-American as they look ahead to next year.

St. John’s hockey will graduate four seniors this spring, including all three members of the team’s first line. But with Schueller expecting to return all eight All-MIAC honorees next season, the team expects the introduction of a successful recruiting class in 2013-14.

“When I go out to some of the best forwards out there considering this level of hockey, I can tell them that we’re returning eight defensemen and an All-American freshman goalie,” Schueller said. “I’ll tell them if they want to come to a team that’s going to be good, come to St. John’s.”