By Jonathan West / USPHLPremier.com
Seed: Northwest #1
Seeding Round Schedule
All games at Utica University Nexus Center, Utica, N.Y.
Game 1: Thursday, March 23, vs. New York Aviators, 5:30 p.m. EST
Game 2: Friday, March 24, vs. Toledo Cherokee, 12:30 p.m. EST
Remainder of schedule to be determined by seeding round results.
Vernal, Utah’s Oilers are representing the USPHL’s new Northwest Division at Nationals this week.
Where exactly is Vernal? Two thousand miles west of Utica, New York, just a few turns off of Interstates 90 and 80, lies this new junior hockey haven. Near Flaming Gorge, the Colorado border, and Dinosaur National Monument, this area of the West is affectionately nicknamed “Dino-land.” Notable residents include rodeo cowboy Lane Frost and “Ghosts of Mississippi” screen star James Woods. Brigham Young might have rejected this area in 1861, but David Imonti invested here in 2021 after building success with the Provo Predators.
“As a Salt Lake City resident almost 200 miles away, Vernal was always on my radar as an ideal destination for a junior hockey team. It’s a hard working, blue collar town and you really aren’t competing for market share with anyone other than high school sports and the occasional rodeo,” said Imonti. “I also knew we’d attract a different type of player than other organizations. We don’t have a beach, a major city center, great weather, or world-class facilities drawing them to the Uintah Basin. Players come to Vernal to improve as hockey players and earn college commitments or Tier II tenders. I feel that tends to attract skilled kids with good character that are also advancement-oriented. And that has played a huge role in the success we’ve had to date.”
“The real difference maker in Vernal though is the people. We have so many folks willing to literally drop everything at a moment’s notice to help us whenever we need them,” said Imonti. “From game operations, to bus mechanics, to supporters hosting team dinners before game weekends, to the local billet families lining up to host close to 30 players. The town of Vernal has embraced this team as their own, and there is no way we could do it without the local community.”
The community aspect of the Oilers’ push to Nationals has certainly not ceased even if there are no home games left.
“Other than our daily practices last week, we’ve been active with several fundraising activities during the season’s end, because it’s not easy to get from Eastern Utah to Upstate New York!” added Imonti. “We had a team lunch at Wendy’s, one of our sponsors, before we left Monday evening to catch our flight out of Denver on Tuesday. Also, several other groups of fans had various sendoffs for the boys.”
Ranked No. 1 in the league for most of the season, Vernal rode a 19-game winning streak to start the season through mid-December. Also the Oil are no strangers to travel, being in the Mountain West with the majority of their Pacific Northwest opponents 1,000 miles away on average.
Vernal will face teams from Brooklyn (the New York Aviators) and Toledo (Cherokee) in the 20-team seeding round on Thursday and Friday. The Orange & Blue are one of only four teams from west of the Mississippi at Nationals, but Head Coach Mike Gennello sees no change in preparing for these first East Coast opponents. He knows constant preparation has to be a priority now.
“For our group of guys, there’s no change in expectation. Yes, we understand the level of competition raises in Utica, but it raises for everyone, not just for the Vernal Oilers. We’ve said all along, when we are healthy and playing our game we can compete with anyone in the country. Now we get that chance to prove it,” said Gennello.
The Oilers advanced to the Nationals off a two-game sweep of the Rogue Valley Royals, and then a challenging three-game series against the Seattle Totems.
“What players really drove the Northwest Finals series versus Seattle? There are so many names that I could drop here that would all be fantastic answers. Guys that accepted lower minutes just to battle through injuries, and players battling through sickness as well. But the goalie tandem of Antonio Tarantino and Ben Di Fiore really helped set the tone. Tarantino’s tenacity and competitiveness along with Ben’s drive and calm demeanor in the locker room really helped the group come together to get the job done.”
Notable names that come to mind for Vernal this year include Alex Rene Bartakovics, Filip Molnar, Seungpyo Cho, Presley Toth, and former captain Kyle Russell, before he turned pro in January with the Mississippi Sea Wolves. But #29 Antonio Tarantino has been the backstop for the Oilers. The 21-year-old from Fremont, Calif., had a 20 win season with two shutouts and a .935 save percentage.
“I think our three-game playoff series with Seattle was pivotal for our team because it showed us that anything can happen if we don’t show up ready to play. A harder fought series than in round one, the Totems made us work and grind for the Sunday win,” goaltender Antonio Tarantino added. “Despite the loss in Game 2, I think the series really showed our guys that at this point of the season, nothing’s going to be a cakewalk and that we’re going to have to show up every game to have a chance to win.”
That’s exactly what the goal is for their trip to Nationals – come away with the ultimate hardware.
“Being the first Northwest division team to go to Nationals is a pretty surreal feeling. It’s something we thought was possible since the first day of training camp and we worked hard all season to have this opportunity,” Tarantino added. “Speaking for myself and the team, it’s a great opportunity to play in Utica because of the exposure that’s going to be there. We’re a very young team, so for all the guys to have that opportunity to impress Tier II and college scouts, that is going to be great.”
“Dino-land” this weekend will be looking to add another placard to their town statue of Dinah the Pink Dinosaur: “2023 USPHL National Champions.”