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Air Force commit Clay Cosentino makes debut at Cadet Ice Arena — for the NTDP U18 team

By Chris Bayee, SportsEngine, 12/30/20, 8:00PM MST

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Hub exclusive: The forward for the Aberdeen Wings of the NAHL, who is a former Colorado Rampage player, skated in a pair of exhibition games at the Air Force Academy in mid-December.

Clay Cosentino (14) joined the NTDP's 18U squad as a fill-in player for a couple exhibition games in Colorado Springs in mid-December. The forward will soon play home games in the same arena, due to him being an Air Force commit. Photos by TrevorC

Clay Cosentino (14) joined the NTDP's 18U squad as a fill-in player for a couple exhibition games at Cadet Ice Arena in mid-December. The forward will soon play home games in the same arena as an Air Force commit. Photos by Trevor Cokley

The present collided with the future for Clay Cosentino on Dec. 12-13.

Off to a sterling start this season for the Aberdeen Wings of the North American Hockey League (NAHL), Cosentino was called up by the U.S. National Team Development Program's (NTDP) U18 team to play two exhibition games in the venue he will call home during his college years — Cadet Ice Arena at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

The weekend, which included Cosentino picking up an assist in the second game, brought things full circle for the forward, a former Colorado Rampage player who committed to Air Force in January 2020.

“When the NTDP called, I didn’t know what to say,” Cosentino said. “It can’t be real. I never would have expected something like this to happen.”

That’s because it’s such a rare occurrence. 

“To play in front of the coaches you’ll play for, in the facility you’ll play in … in 22 years of coaching I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Aberdeen coach Scott Langer.

The timing worked out well because the South Dakota-based Wings were off that weekend, which allowed Cosentino to practice with the NTDP players in Plymouth, Michigan, during the week leading up the exhibitions. 

“It was a great experience,” Cosentino said. “I love the area, and it was fun being back. [The NTDP] needed some players because of injuries. They could have picked a lot of guys, but they saw I was having a good year and was committed to Air Force.

“Getting to play there, putting on the USA jersey, it was pretty special.”

To say Colorado has grown on Cosentino is an understatement. He likes it so much that even though he’s from northern California, he returns to the Centennial State every summer to train in Monument. 

And that affinity for Colorado has been there since he first visited to check out the Rampage’s AAA opportunities and Monument Hockey Academy after having played AA hockey until he was 16.

“I needed to play more competitive hockey,” Cosentino said. “When I visited, I clicked with [18U coach] Luke Fulghum and I saw so many opportunities for training. It seemed like it was meant to be.”

Likewise, Cosentino made a good impression in his new setting. 

“He came in with a smile on his face and ready to work every day,” Fulghum said. “He was a model student and a model hockey player. He was very dedicated and patient with his development. 

“A lot of players are in a rush to advance, to get to junior hockey. Clay had good size [now 6-foot-2, 196 pounds] and excellent skill, but he needed to get faster. He was content with putting in the work. He was very low maintenance. There was never a thought to pursue junior after that first season.”

Clay Cosentino (14) has recorded 24 points, including 20 assists, in 14 games played this season for the Aberdeen Wings, a South Dakota-based NAHL team. The forward will return to Colorado next year to play for Air Force Academy.

Clay Cosentino (14) has recorded 24 points, including 20 assists, in 14 games played this season for the Aberdeen Wings, a South Dakota-based NAHL team. The forward will return to Colorado next year to play for Air Force Academy.

After drawing cursory glances from junior teams during his first season with the Rampage, things changed the next year. Cosentino tied for the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League scoring lead with 42 points in 30 games during his second season with the Rampage (2018-19). 

“He was our captain, and he just took off,” Fulghum said. “There were nine teams beating down his door trying to tender him.”

Aberdeen was among those in pursuit. 

“Steve Jennings, our director of player personnel, saw him at a tournament,” Langer recalled. “He was so good that he went to see him again and came away convinced he’d be a great fit.”

Cosentino hit the ground running in South Dakota, recording 31 points in 51 games last season. That caught the attention of Air Force associate head coach Andy Berg, who recruited Cosentino. Again, the fit was there, and Cosentino committed in January 2020.

“I had never played a game [at Cadet Ice Arena] until I did with the NTDP but I had watched a lot of them,” Cosentino said. “It was one of my first choices. Seeing the arena, living in Colorado, I knew I wanted to play college hockey in Colorado. Knowing what Air Force is all about — that rose to the top.”

He also had some inside intel on the program from former Rampage teammate Maiszon Balboa, who is a freshmen goaltender for the Falcons, as well as freshmen Luke Robinson and Brian Adams, whom Cosentino knew from northern California. And he will be joined at Air Force next season by another ex-Rampage teammate, defenseman Jasper Lester, who is playing for Fairbanks in the NAHL.

Cosentino has continued his progression this season, piling up 24 points, including 20 assists, in his first 14 games. The numbers, however, don’t fully do justice to what Cosentino has brought to the Wings.

“He makes guys around him better,” Langer said. “He’s very smart, he makes the right decision all the time. He allows us to play some guys with him who are all offense because he’s so responsible. 

“I play him 27 minutes a game, in every situation.”

Cosentino also is the Wings’ captain, just as he was for the Rampage and for his 16U team.

“He’s a high character individual,” Langer said. “He seems to do everything right every day. He never second-guesses things. He leads by his play — he works so hard. When he does talk, people listen.

“There was no doubt in my mind when he came back he would be our captain because he handles himself so well.”

Langer added: “He’s fully capable at our level, and we’re lucky to have him. He’s going to leave a mark on our organization. His youth coaches have done a great job with him, and his parents have done an outstanding job.”

All of that has contributed to prepare Cosentino to be ready for takeoff in his adopted home of Colorado.

“I’ve coached a lot of great kids over the years,” Fulghum added. “Clay sticks out. I’m extremely proud of him, and I use him as an example with my players.”

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