By Ross Forman
It’s been a rough go for the co-op Kings in the top-tiered, 11-team Champions League of the North-Central Division. In the team’s first 14 games, the Kings are in last-place with a 1-11-2 record and have surrendered a league-leading 76 goals, which is 24 more than Crystal Lake South, which has allowed the second-most goals. By comparison, BG/H/W and Loyola Maroon lead the league, each having allowed only 31 goals so far – in 13 and 15 games, respectively.
But yes, there is still optimism on the Kings bench, especially for what the future holds.
“We started this program in 2012 and struggled to field two small JV teams (and) recruiting was a challenge, to say the least,” recalls Kings head coach Joe Fell, 48, who lives in Belvidere and is in his 16th year coaching. “From there, we have improved each year (and) are now a Top 20 team, finishing in the Elite 8 in the Combined State Tournament for the past three seasons.
“The publicity that comes with a solid finish helps make your recruiting job easier. I am very proud of what we have accomplished and how far we have grown in the first five years. It has not been easy, but has been rewarding. We need to take the next step now, which is to compete against the best teams each night, and do the little things in all three zones that make winning teams who they are. We had a lot of new faces to our club this year and that was fun. They always bring a lot of enthusiasm and appreciate what we are trying to do. This was our first season with a third team (too), so that created some new logistical challenges.
“Overall, it has been very positive and we hope to keep growing.”
The Kings’ varsity roster features junior Hunter Changet, the lone representative from Burlington Central High School, while junior Nicholas Laterza and sophomore Nicholas Sladek attend Hampshire. The team includes student-athletes from Dundee-Crown (3), Huntley (6) and Jacobs (8).
And there are five sophomores in the club’s top team.
“Through injury and adversity, we have a lot of young players who are playing varsity games against the likes of Loyola (Maroon), New Trier (Blue and White) and (defending Combined Division state champion) BG/H/W,” Fell said. “In the long run, that is going to help our club build depth for the next few years. On most nights this season, we are rolling four lines, which provides valuable experience for the underclassmen.
“I think we started well (this season). We had a solid tiering round and made it to the Champions League. After that, we began playing the top teams in our league every night and there was a learning curve there for sure. The speed is much faster compared to the other divisions. I think we have run into more injuries than we have had in previous seasons, too.
“On a positive note, though, that creates opportunities for the younger guys and it is nice to see what some of our underclassmen are capable of when they play for the varsity team. It is here, that our youth has shown itself from time to time. Consistency in your lines and line chemistry is affected when you’re bringing up JV players for games. We struggled to close out games when we had the lead in the third period. Teaching kids how to play in the third period is an interesting dynamic and it takes some players longer to grasp the concepts of how to play with a lead.
“I remind the players of the positives of playing better opponents, and there are not going to be any easy games.”
The Kings return to league play on Sunday night, Jan. 8, on the road against Highland Park, which is 3-6-3 in Champions action and finished its 2016 portion of the schedule with a 1-1-1 record in the Giants’ final three games, including a 6-2 win at Crystal Lake South.
“Last (season) we had more team speed and could really tilt the ice with our fore-checking,” Fell said. “We were one of the top scoring teams in our league, but struggled in the defensive end (of the ice).
“This year we have some of the same issues in the D Zone. We welcomed more new players onto our varsity team this year, so it look a bit longer to get those players comfortable with our systems and how we like to play here. Add to that, we are obviously younger and our players are occasionally less aggressive then we would like. Part of that is indecision. Overall, we need to win more 50/50 pucks and win more of the one-on-one battles that occur throughout a game. We are really committed to building skill development, one-on-one drills and small area games in our practices. We have seen a real improvement in these areas this year.”
The Kings’ key returners are center Jim Giuliano, defenseman Hunter Doyle, and wings Matteo Garwacki and Alex MacDonald. Other noteworthy returners include wing Nick Sladek, forward Ryan Thompson, wing Ryan Wrzeszcz and goalie Cassidi Revere.
The offense is led by senior Jim Giuliano, who has a team-leading 6 goals in Champions League play. “Jim has great vision, moves the puck well and can stickhandle with the best of them,” Fell said. “Ryan Ringa and Ryan Thompson are scoring threats every time they are on the ice. Our shooting percentage needs to improve. We can generate great scoring chances throughout a game, (but) there are times we have an issue hitting the net.”
Captains Hunter Doyle and Jack Wilkin anchor the defense. “They are the quarterbacks of our power play and activate well to give us that late scoring threat on our zone entry,” Fell said. “Kyle Hwang and Hunter Changet are speedy juniors who can skate; Dom Bianchi is a big, physical sophomore who has taken great strides to improve this season. This group does a good job collectively handling the different fore-check systems that are thrown at us. They are all capable puck handlers.”
Goalie Cassidi Revere has been playing very well, Fell said. “She is a very technically sound goalie who can change a game,” he added. Nick Laterza was a key loss for the Kings. He injured his groin in the first month and is still out. The team has had to bring up JV goalies Joe Schumacher and Jack Theil, both of whom are underclassmen.
The Kings power-play is only converting on about 20 percent of its tries. “We discuss execution a lot, (including) puck possession and high percentage passing to eliminate turnovers.”
The team’s penalty-kill has been its Achilles heel.
“We do a good job on the forecheck, but once teams get set up in our zone, we become too passive,” Fell said. “We are operating about 65 percent on the PK, so we would like to see some improvement there.”
Senior right wing Matteo Garwacki should be a force for the Kings, looking to surprise foes over the next couple of months. “He has all the physical attributes of a dominant player,” Fell said. “He has size and is one of our fastest skaters. His shot is excellent in terms of velocity and quickness. We are hoping that Matteo, while off to a slower start than we would like in terms of points, can turn the final portion of his senior season into one he will remember. He is more than capable.”
Fell is a hockey lifer – of 43 years. He grew up playing here in Chicago for the Falcons and the Chicago Minor Hawks and then collegiately for the U.S. Air Force Academy. “I started coaching when my sons were old enough to skate. I coached them through their club years at Rockford,” Fell said. “It was at this point that I was approached to coach the (now-defunct Rockford) Icemen High School Team in addition to the younger guys. I starting coaching the Rockford Icemen in 2000. I was a part of the varsity program there for nine years before starting the Kings in 2012.”
Fell also is in his third season as Vice President of the IHSHL and he has a Level 5 USA Hockey coaching credential. He is assisted on the varsity bench by Scott Keeney, who is a defensive-minded coach. “He brings some calmness to our bench and does a great job in game teaching our younger guys,” Fell said.
The North-Central Division also features the 10-team Sterling League, led by PREP (8-1-1), Libertyville (8-3) and Warren (7-42). Then there is the 10-team Platinum League, which includes 11-0 Lake Zurich, the D211 Chiefs (7-5-2) and Lake Forest Gold (6-4-3).
“The strength of (the North-Central Division) is that it offers (leagues) that group clubs of equal strength,” Fell said. “Regardless of how strong any particular JV or varsity team may be, once the tiering round runs its course, you will end up with a schedule full of opponents that are as close to the same level as possible.
“The (North-Central) Board is flexible and each year makes adjustments based on what is occurring with its members. For the Kings, playing in the Champions Division marked a positive milestone in our growth. It is fun to coach some of these fast games; you could almost call them track meets. We strive to become a top club in this division. We hope we learn and improve by playing the tougher opponents versus staying in the middle division with a higher winning percentage.”
Fell said he is very proud of his team so far, despite its sub-par record.
“If you look at our body of work in the regular-season from a win/loss standpoint, we have struggled to play an entire hockey game and our record will reflect that,” he said. “However, for all or parts of games, I have seen our team compete and play with anybody. As we grow and mature as a team, it will be important to get everyone holding up their end in all three zones, if we are to have success. We have some great people in our club and we all do this for the kids.
“It is still rewarding to take a group of players and watch them develop and learn over the course of a season. That is the part I enjoy the most. High school-aged players can push you to the test at times, but finding new ways to motivate them and create a fun environment is part of the appeal.”
Fell added, “When we first started the club, most of our players were from only two schools. We have a greater representation today, (with) five schools (represented). Part of our challenge is to build chemistry on the bench and in the locker room. Many of the players grew up playing club hockey together, so there are many relationships already in place. Once the chinstrap is fastened, it doesn’t matter what high school (anyone) attends; they are one team.
“Where our challenge is, is in our fan base. We play under the Kings logo and that doesn’t always resonate with the high school students at any of the schools. Our board is constantly trying to get our player’s classmates to come out and see what they can do on the ice.
“I think the Combined Division is an important option in hockey today. As a player in the 1980s, when I was home from trips, I always played in the high school games and every school was able to field a pure team. Everyone double-rostered back then, or at least it felt that way. I have seen the number of combined teams grow during my tenure as a coach. When you get outside of the bigger clubs, combined hockey is a necessity. I like the changes AHAI made a couple of years ago where teams are combined by school district or geographic area and give some structure as to how the combinations are determined. It is my hope that these combinations stay consistent in the years to come.”
Can The Trevians Be Toppled?
Will anyone stop New Trier Green en route to the team’s third consecutive state championship?
Can anyone even slow this Green juggernaut?
It doesn’t look like anyone will interrupt Green’s run to the United Center.
The Trevians ran roughshod in the 23rd annual Chicago Blackhawks Charities High School Hockey Classic.
Green opened tournament play with a 9-1 win over St. Ignatius of Cleveland, then dismantled perennial co-op power Glenbard, 9-0, before blitzing Barrington, 8-0. In the quarter-finals, Green destroyed Naperville Central, 13-0, then skated over Missouri power CBC, 8-1.
The Trevians won the title with a 4-0 win over Providence Catholic.
For those of you doing the scoring, since obviously no one seems to be able to do it against Green, the Trevians out-scored their tournament foes 51-2.
Not surprisingly, the Trevians remain the No. 1-ranked team in the latest Illinois High School Top 25 Rankings (as of Jan. 2).
Here’s a look at the latest Top 25 Rankings from Ross Forman:
- New Trier Green
- Loyola Gold
- Providence Catholic
- Glenbrook North
- St. Rita
- Benet Academy
- Neuqua Valley
- Notre Dame
- New Trier Blue
- St. Ignatius
- New Trier White
- Loyola Maroon
- Naperville Central
- Maine Township
- Latin School of Chicago
- Wheaton West
- Lake Forest Blue
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.