By Ross Forman
It doesn’t look like much of a battle for bragging rights to the regular-season crown in the IHSHL West Division. Neuqua Valley looks to have it locked up, with its 19-1 record.
But second-place should be a fun run down the stretch, with five teams looking for that honor.
Naperville Central (14-5) has 28 points, followed by Glenbard (13-3-0-1) which has 27 points, and then Maine Township (13-5) and OPRF (13-5) with 26 points apiece. Waubonsie (12-5-0-1) also is within striking distance with 25 points.
“The league has a lot of balance this season and in the top half, anyone can beat anyone on a given day,” said OPRF head coach Dave Dyson, who acknowledged that Neuqua Valley “has been the best team and has a lot of depth and team speed.”
Still, Dyson is optimistic that his Huskies will have a strong showing in the final two months.
“I love where we are right now,” Dyson said. “The guys are really committed to playing a team game and the confidence levels of the young guys is going up by the week. I expect us to continue to improve as we head into league playoffs and (the state tournament, when we) should be peaking at the right time of year.”
OPRF finished its final league games of the 2016 portion of the schedule with mid-December wins over Naperville North and Hinsdale Central.
This season, the Huskies also have defeated Waubonsie Valley for the first time in the four seasons that Dyson has coached the club; and OPRF also upset Stevenson in the quarterfinals of the Patriots’ Thanksgiving tourney in Buffalo Grove.
And the Huskies have held opponents to two goals or fewer in two-thirds of their games.
Dyson said OPRF had a “great start to the season,” but the team does show its youth at times. “We have had some great wins against tough opponents and have shown a great propensity for late comebacks and winning tight games,” he said.
Dyson, 43, who lives in Chicago, is in his fourth season on the OPRF bench and this is his 16th season coaching. He was the head coach at Wheaton West from 2007-2013, and before that coached from 2001-2005 in Minnesota at the bantam and high school level.
Dyson’s resume also include numerous honors:
- Team Illinois coach for America’s Showcase, 2014-2015-2016.
- ISHL Lori Maly Distinguished Service Award, 2010-2011.
- Illinois West Coach of the Year, 2011-2012.
- Illinois West President’s Award for Program Building, 2015-2016.
Last season, Dyson led OPRF to an overall record of 26-27 and an elite eight appearance in the state tournament. OPRF also was 1-2 last year in the annual High School National Tournament, held in Washington D.C.
Dyson is assisted on the varsity bench by Steve Meagher, who has been coaching alongside Dyson since 2008. Meagher is “one of the best minds for the game I have ever met,” Dyson said. They played club hockey together 20 years ago in college and have remained best friends. Dyson even was the best man in Meagher’s wedding in 2014. “The kids absolutely love Steve and have an unending amount of respect for his knowledge of the game,” Dyson said.
OPRF’s JV squad is coached by Karl Hayes, son of local hockey legend, George Hayes.
Matt Bonaccorsi is the JV assistant, who was “an extremely talented hockey player” who is able to break down the elements of hockey skill to a core level that the younger players can embrace and build from, Dyson said.
OPRF goalie coach is Stan Dubicki. “He is not only a great tactical coach, but more importantly knows how to coach the mental part of the position as well as anyone I have met,” Dyson said.
OPRF also features Strength and Skills Coaches: David Salamoun and Rob Johnson.
Salamoun played professionally and “gets the players to commit to developing their overall athleticism in a way that is fun (and with) a high degree of accountability,” Dyson said. Johnson played professionally in Amsterdam and is the embodiment of how to get joy out of the game of hockey, Dyson said. “He is also our bridge-builder to the Oak Park youth program.”
OPRF’s varsity features great team speed and skating, plus a commitment to team play and systems, Dyson said. “The guys are really committed to being the best team they can be; they understand they can do more collectively than by being self-interested.”
This bunch of Huskies is a young group in comparison to a year ago, “with tons of hockey talent,” Dyson said. Plus, OPRF has “an extremely high hockey IQ,” he added. “We lost 85 percent of our goal-scoring from last year’s team, but we are stronger defensively than last year and some of our young talent is starting to fill the hole left by the departure of some great goal scorers.”
Key returners this season include junior defenseman Spencer Smith, junior forward Liam Burns, senior goalie Ben Ostler and senior defenseman CJ Pospisil.
Newcomers of note this season include freshman forward Ricky Jones, sophomore center Hank Burkett, sophomore center Harrison Proctor, and freshman forward Sam Pechenka.
“We have a lot of balance with scoring coming from all lines and the (defense),” Dyson said. “The offense has been steadily improving as some of the young talent gets comfortable at this level.”
Jones, for instance, is second in scoring; and Burns is proving himself to be a top player and is starting to take over games while still making all of his teammates better, Dyson added.
“The defensive core has been very solid and has had to adjust to a season-ending injury to a key player. Our overall emphasis has been on team defense and it has proven to be very effective,” Dyson said.
The OPRF goaltending tandem has been exceptional. Owen Bell is an extremely athletic and fast, young goalie; Ben Ostler is showing that, as a senior, he is among the best out there. “Both of them keep us in every game and have the ability to steal one as well,” Dyson said.
The Huskies have been very strong at penalty-killing to date, and the team’s power-play is starting to click.
Junior forward Liam Burns could be a key to OPRF’s lifeline into March. He is in his third year on the varsity team and is very talented offensively, and has worked hard to become a complete hockey player. “He has exceptional hands and ice vision, and is as good as any player at the high school level,” Dyson said.
Dyson added, “I am most proud of the culture of success on and off the ice we have worked to build. Not only have we learned to become a winning hockey program on the ice, (but) we are committed to building great leaders off of it as well. We are always among the leaders in academic all-stars and have established a great culture of giving back in big and small ways. Our older players work with the Ice Bears youth program to give back to the game and our annual ‘Hockey Checks Hunger’ food drive in December once again gathered over 25,000 pounds of food for the Oak Park Food Pantry.”
*All photos courtesy of OPRF Hockey*
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.