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Former Wildcat Luke Jenkins never lost sight of his goal to play hockey at the NCAA Division I level. Now, after three seasons proving himself in junior hockey, Jenkins is preparing to leave for West Point to play for the Black Knights of Army. Bob Burrows photo

Former Wildcat earns hockey scholarship to West Point

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Luke Jenkins was a two-time All-Big Rivers Conference player, two-year team captain and All-State selection in high school with the Wildcat hockey team. But after graduating from River Falls in 2009, he wasn't sure he'd ever play organized hockey again.

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Three years later, he's preparing to leave for the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. to play NCAA Division I hockey for the Black Knights of Army.

Jenkins leaves July 1 for six weeks of basic training at West Point, and will begin classes and hockey practice with the Army team in the fall.

"I'm very excited," he said while taking a break from working out at River City Ironworx last Thursday. "I'm starting to get a little nervous as I get closer to the reality that I'll be leaving soon, but all the guys on the team have reached out, about everything from hockey to getting through basic, so I'm feeling good about it."

The 21 year-old Jenkins had no college offers and went undrafted in the junior hockey ranks after high school. He was preparing to give up hockey and attend college in Florida to pursue an interest in aviation when he decided to join former Wildcat teammate Ross Andersen at a tryout with the Springfield (Ill.) Junior Blues of the North American Hockey League.

Both former Wildcats made the team but Jenkins played sparingly, and in January, 2010, was traded to the Albert Lea (Minn.) Thunder. The Albert Lea franchise was purchased by new owners in Texas during the offseason, and Jenkins was told the team was moving to Amarillo to become the Bulls for the 2010-11 season.

"I wasn't happy about being traded to Albert Lea and I wasn't sure I would go to Texas," Jenkins said. "But the Amarillo coach called me up and said no one was guaranteed a roster spot and everybody would have to earn it. He was very straightforward and it was nice to hear, so I told my dad, I'm going."

Turns out being traded and moving to Texas were the best things that could have happened for Jenkins. He worked his way into the lineup his first season and became a key component of the Bulls' penalty kill and power play units this past year.

The 5-foot, 10-inch, 180-pound defenseman averaged over 30 minutes of ice time in 56 games with the Bulls this season, and caught the eye of Division I coaches, including the staff at Army.

"They were looking at another guy on the team, Joe Kozlak, and they saw me play while they were recruiting him," Jenkins said. "I was talking to a couple of other schools and they were OK options but they didn't have what West Point could offer as far as education and career-wise. The athletic facilities are second to none, and the educational opportunities are great."

Jenkins accepted Army's scholarship offer last November. After completing his education at West Point, he will be commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and serve a five-year commitment to active duty.

Jenkins said he put a lot of thought into the decision to serve in the military.

"I did a lot of talking with my dad and my family and it did make the decision a little harder," he said. "But the opportunity to serve the country and being guaranteed a job came into play. I know it will be a great experience."

Jenkins said his goal all along has been to play hockey at the Division I level, and credits his coaches at Amarillo -- head coach Dennis Williams and assistant Rocky Russo -- with helping him fulfill his dream.

"The last two years I did a lot of growing up and they were a big part of that," he said. "Honestly, I probably wouldn't have a Division I scholarship without them."

Williams had nothing but praise for Jenkins in a story on the team's website.

"Luke is a great example of hard work paying off," Williams said. "Two years ago Luke came to us and fought his way on this team and eventually on all special teams. When times were tough on Luke, he continued to work hard and persevered."

Jenkins, who lost his mother Jennifer in a car accident when he was ten, said his entire family, especially his father Tom and sister Brittany, have supported him throughout the process.

"They'd follow what I was doing during the year and get together to watch my games on the internet," he said. "I've had huge support from my whole family.

I couldn't ask for better family support."

He also credits the family he lived with while playing hockey the last two years in Amarillo -- Dave and Christine Prichard -- with helping him make the decision to go to Army.

"I had a lot of long talks with them and they played a big part in my decision," he said. "In junior hockey you've got to have somewhere to come home to and get a meal and support. I couldn't have asked for a better situation than the one I had with them."

Army is a member of the Atlantic Hockey Association, which includes Meryhurst College, where Jenkins' former Wildcat teammate Trent Frey will be a junior next season, and Air Force, where former Hudson rival Ryan Dau will be a freshman. Jenkins and Dau played against each other last year when Dau was a member of the New Mexico Mustangs.

"We were joking about how it was going to be the old River Falls-Hudson rivalry again with Army and Air Force," he said. "In football it's the Army-Navy game, but in hockey it's Army-Air Force."

Jenkins will join 13 other incoming freshman on the Army hockey team at a team barbecue in West Point July 1, and begin basic training the next day.

"I'm ready," he said. "I'm looking forward to it."

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Bob Burrows
Bob Burrows has been sports editor at the River Falls Journal since 1996 and at the Hudson Star-Observer since 2009. Prior to joining the Journal, Burrows served as sports editor with Ledger Publications in Balsam Lake, Wis. A native of Bayonne, N.J. and a U.S. Navy veteran, Burrows attended Marquette University before completing his studies at UW-River Falls in 1992.
(715) 426-1047
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