Monday, February 28, 2011

Former prep rivals tandem well for Jacks

At some point, every adult wishes he was back in high school; however, that might not apply to Charlie Taft or Isaac Kohls.

After all, that would mean they’d again be bitter rivals, whereas they’re currently linemates and enjoying sensational rookie seasons in the United States Hockey League for the Muskegon Lumberjacks.

Taft won a Minnesota state hockey title before graduating from Edina High School last spring. Kohls’ alma mater was half an hour due East at Hill-Murray High School, from where he graduated in 2009. He helped the Pioneers win the title in 2008 over – you guessed it – Edina.

“I admit I knew more about Isaac than he did about me,” Taft says. “He was the upperclassman stud and I was the up-and-comer. He’s always had great hands. It was horrible trying to get the puck from him in high school.”

These days, Kohls is much more familiar with Taft’s rare skill set.

“He’s impossible to knock off the puck,” Kohls says. “He’s fast. He’s got a great shot. All I have to do is play fast and get the puck up the ice.”

Kohls and Taft rank tied for sixth and eighth, respectively, on the Jacks’ roster in scoring. The stocky 5-foot-9, 190-pound pivot Kohls has 13 goals and 13 assists. Lumberjacks head coach Kevin Patrick doesn’t hesitate to put his wrist shot up there with the best in the league.

“I’d take his up against anybody’s,” Patrick said.

Taft, a 6-1 186-pound right winger who’s emerged as one of the league’s strongest skaters, has 12 goals and 10 assists. Both he and Kohls say they’ve developed a keen sense of where the other will be and when.

“He always knows where I’m going to be, so I just have to get open,” Taft says. “It’s funny. We used to be arch rivals. I always hated playing against him, so it’s funny how we’re linemates now and having so much success.”

Kohls attributes the duo’s immediate success to the preparation that comes with playing high school hockey in Minnesota. The 2009 state title game was played in front of a standing-room-only crowd of nearly 20,000 fans at the Xcel Energy Center.

“The pressure that comes with playing Minnesota hockey helps your prepare for the pressure of the USHL and the big crowds you’ll be playing in front of,” Kohls says. “But I’m still getting used to the competition and the parity in the league. Nothing comes easy.”

Taft always planned to take the USHL route, and was ecstatic to be selected in the fourth round of the 2010 USHL Draft. But he couldn’t have been as pleased as Kohls, who’d tendered with Fresno of the NAHL.

“I obviously wanted to play in the USHL, but I needed to have a backup plan,” Kohls says. “I actually got a text from my NAHL coach while I was at work telling me I got drafted. I couldn’t believe it.”

Things have continued to come up Kohls as of late, as he recently committed to Niagara University and admits the decision relieved his shoulders of some weight. Fellow Jacks forward Chris Lochner also recently committed to playing for the Purple Eagles. Taft is entertaining suitors that include powerhouses such as Colorado College and Boston University.

Both Kohls and Taft insist it hasn’t been easy acclimating to the premier juniors league in the United States.

“I’m still getting used to it a little bit, going from a 30-game high school schedule to a 60-game schedule,” Taft says. “It took me half the season just to get used to the speed and physicality of the league.”

“It’s a great league,” Kohls chimes in. “It’s tough to crack the lineup and even tougher to put up points.”

Kohls, like all USHL skaters, hopes to carve out a career in the NHL someday but, for the moment, he’s simplifying the offense.

“You just need to take it one step at a time,” he says. “I’m looking forward to developing for four more years in college. The idea is to play incredibly well and have NHL teams all over you. You can never rule anything out, but you also have to stay humble."

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