CHIPPEWA FALLS, Wis. — He got a taste of the league a year ago.
That short stint prepared Jacob Dirks to hit the ice ready to make an immediate impact when for the Chippewa Steel at the beginning of the season.
The Mindoro, Wis., native played 13 games with the Coulee Region Chill last year after a successful career with the Onalaska High School program, and this season Dirks has been a key contributor for the first-year Steel.
He leads Chippewa in goals (18) and is second on the team in points (30) entering Saturday’s game at Springfield.
Dirks began last season with Coulee Region, and after two month of games, he returned to play high school hockey for the Hilltoppers, helping them reach a sectional final game.
Dirks could have played the entire season with Coulee Region, but he said it was important to him to play his final season for Onalaska.
“It was just the decision that I made. I wanted to finish out my high school career,” Dirks said. “I think it worked out well.”
The plan was to return to the Chill following the end of the high school season, but an injury prevented him from making his way back into the lineup.
Dirks totaled nine points in his 13 games and said getting experience last year taught him some lessons about what it takes to find success in the NAHL.
“It’s a hard league to play in,” Dirks said. “Everyone is trying to get to the next level so you have to come ready to play every single night.”
When the Chill were sold and moved to Chippewa Falls, Dirks was surprised and although it meant moving farther away from home, he’s found it to be blessing in disguise.
“I think for me it was good to get out of the house a little bit and go somewhere else and mature that way too,” Dirks said of moving to Chippewa Falls.
“There are a lot of things I’ve learned living up here versus being back home.”
He’s still close enough where family and friends can make the trip to see him play and having that comfort has allowed him to succeed.
His 30 points trail only Camden Theising (32). Dirks has been able to use his exceptional speed to make plays for the Steel all season.
“For me it’s up and down the ice. Speed, pace that is my go-to game,” Dirks said about the key to his success.
Chippewa interim coach Carter Foguth said Dirks is someone the coaching staff can trust in many situations, whether that is full-strength, on the power play or to kill off a penalty. He also has a tendency to make something happen offensively when the Steel are in need of a spark.
“He can find his times to hop up and make plays and put the puck in the back of the net,” Foguth said.
The versatility Dirks provides for Chippewa has allowed him to see plenty of time on the ice this year and his consistent performance is due to commitment in practice. Foguth said Dirks is ready to compete every day during practice and that has carried over to the games. That level of effort has made Dirks someone Foguth can depend on.
“We can plug him in any situation during the game and he’s one of our go-to guys,” Foguth said.
Although the wins haven’t been there for the Steel this season Dirks is looking to finish the season strong and seeing if that momentum can carry the team into Chippewa’s first offseason. The Steel will have a chance to bounce back against Springfield beginning on Friday.
The Steel (16-34-3) suffered two close home losses in what will be eight straight games against Springfield this past weekend. Now Chippewa travels to face the Junior Blues and Dirks said he feels better about what to expect from Springfield (29-20-3-1). He said the Junior Blues play a physical style with a fast-paced attack that took time to adjust.
“Every team has their thing and after playing them twice now I think we figured that out a bit,” Dirks said.
Chippewa has three more home games this season with two coming March 23-24 against the Junior Blues before the season finale on April 6 againstthe Minnesota Magicians.