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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Thunder begins its quest for a CHL title

Thunder enters postseason ready to make its own headlines.

By Jeffrey Lutz
The Wichita Eagle

Thunder general manager Joel Lomurno is a Cubs or a Phillies fan depending on the day, but he knows that David Cone pitched for the Royals on April 15, 1994.

Don’t credit Lomurno’s memory for that, though — he’s reminded of it frequently, as are the Thunder players.

That’s because hanging in their dressing room is a print of the Eagle sports section from that day, on which the Thunder was celebrating its first CHL championship. Wichita won it again the next year, and the newspaper from that day resides in the Thunder offices.

The dressing-room print provides several reminders of just how long it’s been since the Thunder was at the top of the CHL, a spot it has regained by earning the top seed in the Berry Conference and home-ice advantage for the playoffs.

Wichita opens the postseason tonight against Rio Grande Valley at Intrust Bank Arena in Game 1 of their best-of-seven first-round series.

"I think (one-time Yankees prospect) Kevin Maas is on the cover for the Wranglers," Lomurno said. "And believe it or not, I think there’s a headline for Wichita State (baseball) that says ’Shockers split with sadness.’ ”

The framed section from that day nearly 18 years ago, Lomurno’s first with the Thunder, was put up in the dressing room before the playoffs last season. It served its purpose to motivate, but as the No. 5 seed in the Turner Conference, Wichita was a relative longshot to end its championship drought.

The newspaper hasn’t moved from that spot for almost a year. The Thunder players are used to seeing it now, but that can be just as much of an irritant as it as a motivator. The Thunder, by now, wants a championship as much to erase history as to create it.

"It’s definitely been a long time since we won a championship," forward Matt Robinson said. "I remember the first year I was here I read the article and everything, but now I don’t really pay much attention to it. It’s just a thing that’s kind of there. It’s definitely a ways back. We just need to get our own articles in there."

Wichita hasn’t won a playoff series since 2005 and has been eliminated in the first round in each of its last three appearances. This Thunder team, however, seems to have more in common with those that won championships than with the teams that fell short.

The 1995 team set the franchise record for wins with 44. The Thunder tied it with three games remaining but suffered its first three-game losing streak of the season and had to settle for sharing the record.

Wichita coach Kevin McClelland was 15 years away from joining the Thunder in 1995 but he has his own championship teams to compare. He won four Stanley Cup championships as an NHL forward and said the Thunder shares some intangible traits with those teams.

"It takes a special group and it takes guys committed and willing to know what’s staring at you with a 66-game schedule and the playoffs," McClelland said. "You have to be focused and you have to sacrifice a lot of things to get where you’re wanting to go."

The Thunder’s intention is clear — win a championship, which would be the second for Wichita professional sports since the Thunder last won one; the Wranglers won the Texas League in 1999.

The Eagle sports section from April 1994 hangs in Wichita’s dressing room, but its usefulness may be nearing an end. Not only does the Thunder no longer need it for motivation — the team is good enough on its own merits to eliminate its necessity — but in a month or so, there may be something to replace it.

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