By Brandon Spratt
Many students go to high school, graduate and prepare for four more years of college.
However, many SJU hockey players get a late start on their college experience because they choose to play junior hockey after high school.
“I came in as an 18-year-old and a lot of these guys were 24,” SJU senior forward Sam Valerius said. “I think one guy was exactly six years older than me my freshman year.”
Of the 27 players on the St. John’s hockey team, only four came straight to SJU from high school. The rest took the junior hockey route.
That includes sophomore defenseman Cole Souto who grew up in Yorba Linda,
“Growing up as a hockey player in California was pretty different,” Souto said. “Most kids around me played baseball, basketball or football. Pretty much anything but hockey.”
He played youth hockey against current Winnipeg Jets prospects Eric Comrie and Chase De Leo.
“No one plays high school hockey in California,” Souto said. “You play AAA travel hockey until you’re 18. If you got to AAA you knew you had a chance to play in college.”
Souto played two years with the Bismarck Bison of the North American Hockey League (NAHL).
“I got off the plane [in Bismarck] and I thought man this place is pretty flat,” Souto said.
Souto became captain of the Bison in his second season.
“We talked over the phone and he [Bison coach] told me some college teams were looking at me,” Souto said. “That was probably the first time that I
realized that I had a good chance of moving on.”
Souto had a couple Division I teams talk to him, but there wasn’t huge interest.
“I could have been [successful] my junior or senior year if I had gotten an opportunity, but definitely not right away,” Souto said.
“I do think that we have some players on our team that could play at that level [Division I],” SJU head coach Doug Schueller said.
Dozens of Division III teams recruited Souto.
“I wasn’t that big of a fan of the coaches, to be honest. And [Schueller] really sold me here on St. John’s,” Souto said. “Throughout the whole second half of the year [2015-16 season] I was talking to Schueller and then I made my decision during the summer time.”
Souto had a successful freshman season for SJU in which he was named All-MIAC first-team and was second on the team with 17 points.
Recruiting junior hockey players is very common at the Division III level, especially in the MIAC.
“I think it’s the maturity not only mentally but physically. It’s hard for an 18-year-old to compete against a 24-year-old,” Schueller said. “We’re one of the few teams in the MIAC that still takes high school players.”
One of the most successful high school recruits to date has been Valerius.
“I recruited him out of the Minnesota Elite League and then watched him throughout his high school season,” Schueller said. “I was excited to get him right out of high school.”
Valerius showed why Schueller was excited with his 2017 All-MIAC first-team
selection. He also led the Johnnies with 22 points last season.
“I talked to a couple of junior teams but my sister actually went to St. Ben’s so I kinda knew that I wanted to come here,” Valerius said. “Coach Schueller likes to give high school kids a chance just because he knows they’re young but can develop if they don’t want to play juniors.”
Valerius is also an alternate captain for the Johnnies this season.
“I’m fortunate to be in that position and hope I can help the team out in any way,” Valerius said.
Souto has adjusted to life in the Midwest since he got off the plane in Bismarck, but as an outsider to the Minnesota hockey culture he wants to see the game grow elsewhere too.
“There’s also good hockey in the non-traditional hockey markets like Arizona, California or Texas,” Souto said.
As for Valerius, he doesn’t regret his decision to come straight to SJU after high school.
“I’m glad I didn’t play [juniors] but a lot of guys say that juniors is the best time of their lives,” Valerius said.
He enters his senior season as one of the youngest players on the SJU roster.
“Some of the freshman are older than me too,” Valerius said.
The Johnnies enter the season with a wealth of experience and are hungry to return to the MIAC playoffs.
“Our expectations are really high,” Valerius said. “We have a lot of our top scorers returning and we also believe we have one of the best freshman classes in the nation.”
FEATURE PHOTO COURTESY OF SJU MEDIA RELATIONS
23 of 27 SJU hockey players played junior hockey before college including sophomore Cole Souto (bottom row second from right). Senior Sam Valerius (bottom row third from right) did not play juniors.