By Ross Forman
Naperville Central has hit a wall each of the past three seasons in the elite eighth round of the Illinois Hockey State Tournament. Twice, the Redhawks lost to New Trier Green, and last year they were eliminated by Glenbrook North.
But this could be the year that the Redhawks skate for state.
Yep, Naperville Central is a true contender to knock New Trier Green off its perch as the two-time defending state champion.
“We need to find a way to break through,” past the quarterfinals, said Jeff Nelson, in his sixth season as the school’s head coach and his 24th overall coaching.
Nelson doesn’t have to look far for the key to Central’s success this season. His son Troy, a senior in his third varsity season, will key the Redhawks’ road out of the West Division of the Illinois High School Hockey League.
The young Nelson was one of the top scorers in the state last year, not just out West.
He also skated for Team Illinois in the annual America’s Hockey Showcase in Pittsburgh.
In the Redhawks’ league-opening win over Plainfield on Sept. 26, Nelson had 4 goals and 2 assists in the 11-0 victory, including the game-winner. The Redhawks were 4-1-1 in September, including a 4-1 win over perennial power Stevenson and a 3-3 tie on the road against No. 4 Loyola Gold.
Naperville Central might be considered by some a dark horse, given the fierce foursome of New Trier Green, Glenbrook North, Providence and Loyola Gold. But the Redhawks have the talent and depth to skate late into March.
Other contenders this season also have to be Neuqua Valley, Benet Academy and Stevenson. The early-season dark horse is Highland Park.
Coach Nelson, 50, is a Naperville resident with a long hockey history. He played at UIC and then in Europe. He coached Waubonsie Valley for five years in the early-1990s.
Coach Nelson was born in Boston and began playing hockey at age 7. His family moved to Chicagoland and Jeff played for the Sabres as well as Huskies Jr. A, Naperville North, and the Franklin Park Jets Jr. A team that went on to win the National Championship.
Jeff left high school after his junior year to attend Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire for two years and received a scholarship to the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) – and he holds the record for the all-time leading scorer in UIC history.
Jeff was selected to the U.S. Sports Festival in 1986 (tryout for the 1988 Olympics), and played two years of professional hockey in the Netherlands; and won the gold medal while playing for the U.S. in the Spengler Cup in Davos, Switzerland in 1989.
Jeff also played on the U.S. National In-line Team for four years, winning three gold medals and one silver medal.
Jeff is a member of the Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame.
Around The Rink:
- Benet skated out of September on a high note, winning the 2014 Belle Tire Tournament in Michigan, winning 2-1 over Troy in the championship game. Benet fell behind 1-0 in the first period, but Mitchell Prasse tied the game, 1-1, with 7:34 left to play in the second period. Forward Liam O’Reilly bagged the game-winner in a shootout. Benet crushed Marist 9-1 in its first Catholic League game on Oct. 5. Conor Coyne and Robert Ernsting each had 2 goals in that victory, while Lee Barnes had 3 assists. Patrick Hickey stopped 17 shots in goal. Benet is 5-3 overall.
- The Cary Grove Trojans are off to a 4-0 start in the 40th year of CG hockey. The Trojans crushed St. Pats 10-3 on Oct. 5. CG is coming off back-to-back 2nd-place finishes and back-to-back Elite 8 finishes in the state tournament. Tom Alagna is the team’s new head coach. He has coached at the high school level for the past 10 years at Waubonsie, Oswego, Bartlett, and Wheaton West – at the JV and varsity levels, as an assistant and head coach. Colton Schaffter leads the team with 7 goals, 2 assists. Jack McDonald leads the Trojans with 4 assists, and Colby Flanagan has 3 goals – and all three have been game-winning goals.
- The Fox Valley Hawks – a co-op of players from Batavia, Geneva, Kaneland, St. Charles East and St. Charles North High Schools – have a familiar face on the bench. Phil Gabrielsen, who has coached Illinois high school hockey for 20 years and has been involved in Illinois hockey for 22 years, is the head coach. He has won the Illinois “High School Coach of the Year” from AHAI and has had teams that have been the recipients of the Sportsmanship Awards.
- York cruised to a 7-1 win over DHS in its home opener on Oct. 3, anchored by four unanswered first period goals. One of the game’s highlights came from Matt Dufort, who tallied an upper corner, second period, short-handed goal for the hat trick.
- The Warren girls’ team hung in there against the Latin School of Chicago Oct. 5, trailing 2-0 after two periods. But then the roof collapsed. Latin won, 6-0. Warren lost its season-opener on Sept. 28, falling 8-1 to New Trier. Amanda Ballestero netted the Blue Devils’ lone goal in their first two games, assisted by Samantha Dagel.
Sandburg junior forward Shaun Fox, with uniform No. 71 (and not to be confused with teammate and brother Ryan Fox in jersey No. 51; nor his triplet Matthew Fox, who wears No. 3 on the JV). Shaun had a goal and an assist in the team’s 6-0 win in late-September over Wheaton West. Shaun had an assist on Kyle Kallberg’s goal in Sandburg’s 6-1 loss against Loyola Gold. The Eagles opened the season 1-4, including a 9-2 road loss against Glenbrook North on Oct. 8.
Ross Forman has written about Illinois high school hockey for more than 15 years, and is the only sportswriter to have covered Illinois High School hockey every year during that stretch. He played locally and then at Indiana University before becoming a referee. Ross was a referee for the State Championship game several years ago at the United Center. Contact Ross by email at Rossco814@aol.com.