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Senior Clark Kuster emerges after little playing time his 1st 4 seasons with Huskies

Defenseman has battled injuries, log jam on defense, but is seeing more time as a fifth-year player for St. Cloud State

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St. Cloud State senior defenseman Clark Kuster (2) tries to keep the puck away from Bemidji State forward Alex Ierullo at Sanford Center in Bemidji, Minn. (Courtesy of Tom Nelson/St. Cloud State athletics)

ST. CLOUD, Minn. — As a kid growing up in St. Louis, Mo., the first sport that Clark Kuster loved was not hockey. It was baseball.

So on a couple fronts, it was fitting that Kuster's first college goal happened when he batted in a puck from midair. His parents, Joe and Debbie, were not able to be in Bemidji, Minn., on Oct. 11 for their son's milestone, though.

"They were in (Las) Vegas because my dad plays softball for a 50-and-older team and law enforcement team," Kuster said of his father, who is a police officer and was playing in two tournaments. "He goes through a lot of injuries at his age because of how hard he works. But I talked to them both nights and they were super thrilled."

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When Kuster described his first goal to his dad after the season-opener for the St. Cloud State men's hockey team, it brought back some baseball memories.

"When I was a kid, my dad would always take me to (take) batting practice at the field down from our house and he was like, 'I guess it finally paid off,'" said Kuster, a fifth-year senior defenseman. "That was pretty funny."

Kuster also has a big smile after playing both games in the Huskies' season-opening series at Bemidji State. He is expected to be back in the lineup this weekend when No. 14/-ranked St. Cloud State (0-0-2) has its home opener against No. 11 Northeastern (3-0-1). The two teams play nonconference games at 7:37 p.m. Friday and 6:07 p.m. Saturday at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.

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St. Cloud senior Clark Kuster (2) sends a shot toward the Bemidji State goal in Saturday's game at the Sanford Center in Bemidji, Minn. Jillian Gandsey/The Rink Live

Career college game 14

For Kuster, he would achieve another milestone if he plays on Friday. Kuster has never played in three straight college games. Going into this season, because of a variety of injuries and talented depth on defense, Kuster had played in 13 games in his first four seasons with St. Cloud State.

So when he not only got into the season-opener, but scored his first goal, there was some controlled excitement.

"I was super excited to get out there, but everyone was excited because we'd been off for so long," Kuster said. "I was just thrilled to be out there with the team and the guys and it's always fun playing, going to war with the guys. That in itself is awesome.

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"There's been some tough times. It's been a lot of ups and downs, but the relationships I've built have kept me going and kept me positive. All the support from my parents has been incredible. It's the people that are able to keep you going and I'm very fortunate to have a lot of people in my life that can help me out with that."

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Clark Kuster

After last season, Kuster had a decision to make about returning to the Huskies for another season. A recent NCAA rule allows Division I athletes to play immediately if they transfer to another program after receiving their undergraduate degrees.

Kuster, who is a three-time NCHC Scholar-Athlete Award winner, received his undergraduate degree last spring with a major in psychology and a minor in human relations. He said that the decision to return to St. Cloud State to play for another season was not difficult, despite the fact that there would be nine defensemen on the roster if he did.

"I talked to the coaches, the players on the team now, the people of my (recruiting) class, my parents ... I just felt like this was the place for me to have a fifth year," said Kuster, who is taking graduate level courses in educational administration and leadership. "I love being around those guys in the locker room and playing for them and the coaches. I wouldn't find a better spot for one year than all of the relationships that I built here."

Despite his lack of playing time in his college career, he was voted an assistant captain by his teammates for this season.

Defensive-minded

He came to St. Cloud State after being a captain for the Cedar Rapids Roughriders in his third season of junior hockey in the United States Hockey League in 2014-15. For Cedar Rapids, he had 20 goals and 64 points in 158 games. In juniors, he was known for his grit and strength on the ice along with a blistering slap shot, but he said he knows what his role is with the Huskies.

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"It starts with being good in the 'D' zone, shutting plays down and having a good stick all over the ice and making that good breakout pass," said Kuster, who is listed at 5-foot-10 and 186 pounds. "From there, everything follows. Playing well in the 'D' zone is my role and being dependable back there."

Kuster was a defensive partner with junior Luke Jaycox against Bemidji State and they were a combined plus-3, which was the best plus/minus rating of the three defensive pairs for the Huskies in that series.

"He did his job and made the decision-making process for the coaches tough on who is coming in and out of the lineup," Huskies head coach Brett Larson said of Kuster. "That (defensive) pair played really well. It would have been easy to rotate one of those guys in or out, but they made it tough on us and had a really good weekend.

"(Kuster) was poised and he defended well and just looked like a veteran. I know he hasn't played a ton since he's been here, but he was a calming presence back there with his demeanor and the way he defended. Hopefully for him and the team, he can keep that going."

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St. Cloud State senior defenseman Clark Kuster decided to come back for a fifth season and is taking graduate level courses in educational administration and leadership. Courtesy of Tom Nelson/St. Cloud State University

SCSU notebook

> There will be some special events involved with the season-opening series. On Friday, there will be a banner ceremony before the start of the game to recognize St. Cloud State's 2018-19 NCHC regular season title. St. Cloud State set a record for most conference wins in a season (19). It is the third conference regular season title for the program, which joined the conference in 2013-14.

At 4:30 p.m. Saturday, the public is invited to attend the unveiling of a statue of Herb Brooks, who coached the team in 1986-87 and played a key role in helping the program moved up to the Division I level and get funding for the arena.

After Saturday's game, fans can Skate with the Huskies men's and women's hockey players on the ice. There is no additional cost to skate with the team after the game.

> Fans can watch Friday's game on FOX 9+ and Saturday's game will be televised on FOX Sports North Plus.

> Freshman goalie Jaxon Castor (lower body injury) is the lone St. Cloud State player not expected to be healthy enough to play this weekend. Castor suffered the injury in the Huskies' exhibition game on Oct. 6.

> In St. Cloud State's first two games, its extra skater was a forward. That's a notable change from last season in which Larson had seven defensemen. Larson said that as the coaching staff tries to find line combinations it likes, that trend is likely to continue.

> The Huskies went undefeated (17-0-1) at home last season and have the longest unbeaten streak in the country (18-0-1). The last time St. Cloud State lost at home was 3-2 in overtime to Miami on March 10, 2018, in the opening round of the NCHC playoffs. In the last two seasons — both of which the Huskies won the NCHC regular season title — St. Cloud State is 33-3-3 at the Brooks Center.

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Mick Hatten is a reporter and editor for Forum News Service and helps manage TheRinkLive.com, a website dedicated to hockey. He began working for Forum Communications in November 2018 and has covered St. Cloud State University hockey since 2010. A graduate of St. Cloud State, he has more than 30 years of experience as a journalist and has been a youth hockey coach since 2014. mhatten@forumcomm.com
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