By Ross Forman
Disappointed, unsatisfied, and frustrated is how the co-op team reflects on the 2016-17 campaign.
“We had high expectations last year and ultimately fell short,” said Wheaton West head coach Keith Fahrforth. “We went through some highs and lows (last) season and did not peak when it mattered most. Looking back, I know it makes all of our players hungry this year.”
Wheaton West brings back 13 seniors, all of whom are “ready to battle every day so we do not fall short again,” Fahrforth said.
The West Division of the IHSHL has been warned.
Wheaton West unites student-athletes from Wheaton-Warrenville South, Wheaton North, West Chicago, Wheaton Academy and St. Francis High Schools – and the club has a JV and varsity team.
The team’s mission is, to create a single high school hockey club that focuses on excellence in the classroom, in the community and on the ice.
They practice at Carol Stream Ice Rink and play their home games at the Addison Ice Arena.
“We had some really competitive games in (the) preseason,” Fahrforth said. “The players learned a lot about where we are at right now and what we need to work on moving forward. There is a good feeling about the group we have and we think we can be competitive against any team we face.”
Fahrforth, 30, lives in Batavia and is in his eighth season coaching – all eight at the high school level, and all eight with Wheaton West. He coached JV hockey for his first three seasons and the varsity game for the past four.
Last season, the team finished 28-23-1 overall.
Mike Scheffler is the varsity defense coach, while Jon Gilbertsen leads the offense and Mike Dwyer is the goaltending coach.
“I have three excellent assistants that allow me to look at the big picture during practices and games,” Fahrforth said. “I’ve known (Scheffler) since 8th-grade and we even played a few seasons together growing up. He is a great example of someone who knows the game well and can translate his knowledge into coaching. Jon, being a younger coach, brings a lot of energy to our staff; he definitely has a bright future in coaching. A crucial asset of our entire coaching staff is Mike Dwyer, (who) puts in a lot of hours with our goalies, on and off the ice. Having him on the bench is a huge part of our program.”
Fahrforth said uniting student-athletes from multiple schools is always “an interesting dynamic.”
“We have created a WW culture that our players have grown to embrace,” he said. “Not more than three years ago, we were scraping together two teams with 28 players in our program, but it is because of those players’ dedication to our culture that WW has grown to what we are now. Most of our players spend time with each other all throughout summer. The relationships these players build through hockey is exactly what youth hockey is about.”
Wheaton West was 19-12-0-1 last season in league play, and must replace its leader in league points, Connor Quinn, who graduated. But, the club returns senior forward Conor Tully (West Chicago) and junior forward Jake Baxter (West Chicago). Other key senior returners are:
- Defenseman Nic Pellegrino (Wheaton North);
- Forward Sam McEnery (St. Francis);
- Forward Brad Scholtens (Wheaton-Warrenville South); and
- Defenseman Mike Lilly (St. Francis).
“The key for this team is to fully embrace the opportunity they have in front of them,” Fahrforth said. “This is the most talented group I’ve coached at WW, but like all hockey teams, you need to put in the work before success. We have a very versatile group which will help us when we play teams with specific identities. I like that we can adapt and play with almost any style. Our two biggest strengths come from our back end. Our defense is very deep. There are six guys who we can throw out there at any time. Goaltending is another strength of ours. We are returning both of our varsity goalies (from) last year, led by senior Dylan Horbenko, (who) has had an outstanding start of the season and is the rock of our team.”
Fahrforth added, “We only lost four players from last year’s varsity team. We should be more experienced and ready to push forward. The biggest difference for this year’s team is our depth at all positions. We feel that every line can produce in their own way. We are bigger, faster, and stronger this year. We have three players on our team that will be playing their fourth season on the varsity team and five others that will be playing their third varsity season. That kind of experience on a roster is very helpful.”
Key newcomers under the WW banner are junior defensemen Tyler Kuta and Kris Navar, both from Wheaton-Warrenville South.
Junior forward Tim Sloan (Wheaton North) could be the team’s breakout star.
“Tim has grown considerably and has been working on his game all summer,” Fahrforth said. “He is determined to be a better player than last year and (be) a big part of our offense and success. His speed has improved tremendously and he is truly growing into his large frame. He will be an exciting player to watch this year.”
Sloan had 8 goals, 8 assists in 32 West games last season.
The West is, once again, a loaded league, led by Neuqua Valley, Glenbard, Naperville Central and Maine Township. And Hinsdale Central captured the pre-season Gator Cup, hosted in early-September by Crystal Lake South. Hinsdale Central stopped Lyons Township, another West team, in the tournament finals, 4-2.
Hinsdale advanced to the finals with a 5-2 semifinal win over Loyola Maroon, while Lyons slipped past PREP, 4-3.
Barrington grabbed fifth-place in the Gator Cup, while Lake Forest Blue stopped the host Gators for seventh-place in the 16-team tournament.
“The great thing about (the) West is the depth of competition. There are not two (or) three teams that run away with it every year. The top half of the league plays consistent, competitive games. It’s always hard to say how good a team will be from year to year, but I will say the West League is wide open for the taking this year. There are probably five or six teams that wouldn’t surprise me if they won the league.”
One of WW’s biggest rivalries is, perennial power Glenbard, who Fahrforth admitted, “there has been a competitive rivalry (between the two clubs) over the last few seasons.”
Fahrforth added, “A lot of the players (on both clubs) know each other well and both teams’ fans have a big turnout. OPRF is another game we always look forward to. Both teams play hard against each other and both programs have developed significantly over the past three years. Waubonsie is the other game we are looking at on our calendar this year. They have had our number for the last several years and we want to change that this year.
“As a team, we approach our season one game at a time. So even though we have big games on our calendar, we stay focused on the game at hand.”
So how far can Wheaton West go in the state tournament?
“We expect both varsity and JV teams to compete at a high level come state playoffs,” Fahrforth said. “Ultimately, it is up to our players, how far they want to go. Our coaching staff will continue to give them the tools to succeed and we will let their play speak for itself. Every team wants to make it to the United Center and I can tell you our players are motivated to get their opportunity this year.”
Fahrforth, a former area high school player, added, “It is great to see where high school hockey has come in the last 15 years. I remember playing for my high school team and Central States team. The overall competition was not even close (to today’s level). The top three or four high school teams were able to compete. Now the gap is closing and the depth of quality teams increases every year. I am a true believer that we have excellent coaches involved in high school hockey and that is a major part of improving the quality. I feel very fortunate to be able to work alongside several of these coaches every year.”
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.