By Ross Forman
There was joy in September for Benet Academy as the Redwings successfully recaptured the Belle Tire Championship in Detroit with a 4-3 win in the championship game against the GRAHA Kings. Benet finished the tournament with a 3-1 record and, after a year away from the tournament, the Redwings have now captured the Belle Tire Championship in their last three visits to Detroit.
But it’s two other titles that the Redwings really want. One in particular.
Benet wants to claim the Kennedy Cup, the prestigious title awarded to the Catholic League champion. And of course a state championship would ice an amazing season.
“The fact that we get out of town early, together, continues to build our team chemistry,” said Benet head coach Jon Grzbek. “Any time you go to Detroit, which has amazing youth hockey, and compete with local teams, let alone win (a) tournament, (that) feels good. It gives the players confidence and our hope is that they choose to build on that experience and not let that be enough.
“Winning anything is a product of great practice habits and a commitment to getting better every day. We do that and we will continue to be in the mix at the end of the year. Our No. 1 goal is the oldest hockey trophy in the state, the Kennedy Cup. Coach Drew Tierney’s dad won it in 1967 and 1969. We know Benet will not have any success, if we are not competing for that trophy.”
Grzbek, who lives in Downers Grove and is a Marist alum, is in his 17th season coaching, his ninth with Benet as its hockey director. He also coaches the Chicago Hawks’ bantam team.
Grzbek is joined on the Benet bench by Andrew Schlie, of Hinsdale (St Rita alum), who is in his 18th year coaching. He also coaches the Fury Girls U14 and the Chicago Hawks peewee minor CSD. Tierney, a Chicago resident and Benet alum, is in his 13th season coaching.
Last year, Benet went 35-21.
The Benet JV went 22-19-1 last season.
The Benet coaching staff is in its ninth season together, including JV coaches Greg Brouman (Benet alum) and Corey Williamson. “It has been our privilege to coach at such an incredible school and to have the school supporting us,” Grzbek said. “We are having as much fun this year as we did our first couple of building years. All of us, from JV through varsity, are passionate about Benet and what high school hockey provides for Benet players, students, faculty and alumni.”
The 2017-18 Redwings are a young team, “therefore we will follow a process,” Grzbek said. “The faster we can build unity and chemistry, the faster our play will reflect that. I expect us to be extremely competitive toward the end of the year.
“Every year, our group of students is different and we have to adjust, as coaches, in order for each year’s group to remain competitive. (Since) we had so many sophomores on varsity last year, I expect them to take lessons, especially positive ones from last year and build that into this year.”
Grzbek said last season “was amazing” for Benet.
“The type of senior talent that existed across the other teams last year was stellar. For Benet to compete at that final four level, was beyond our expectations, but not our hopes,” he said. “That said, we always think we could have done something different to extend our season a bit. The biggest memory from our last season would be the fact that, due to injuries, we played our first game all season with a full roster was (in the state tournament) round of 16. Crazy injury year. Unfortunately we have started this year with injuries as well.
“We tried something different this year. We played games right out of the gate after having only one practice. We will never do it again. The players start with the bad habits from their last team and we are finding without having a solid two weeks of practice before playing a game, it is more of a challenge to influence the players to play the way Benet likes to play. We are growing every practice, and we are really focused on building month over month.”
Benet is led this season by senior captain Calvin McKee, a West Point applicant, senior assistant captain Patrick Quinlan, plus junior Will Sammons and senior Brian Carmichael. They have done “more team-building than I have seen in years,” Grzbek said. “It started over the summer and has continued weekly. They have created a very special environment for us, as coaches, to follow this year.”
The key returners this season are junior forwards Chris Kaleta, Dylan Meagher and Patrick Knott, plus senior Eamon McDonnel; and on defense sophomore Tyler Kozminski, juniors Charlie Chemlik and Jack Paras.
Key newcomers this season include forwards Tommy McDonald (freshman), Anthony Rigitano (sophomore), Sam Tumbali (sophomore), plus defensemen JT Kelly (sophomore) and Quinn Harold (junior).
“It is offense by committee this year,” Grzbek said. “Our seniors will lead us, but we will need other players to find their way to contribute as well. Our leading scorers from last year all graduated, (so) it will be a new group that carries the load this season.
“We have a couple of returning players (on defense who) will play a leadership role in shutting down opposing team’s offense. Our younger defensemen are talented players and will continue to learn how to play defense at the pace of play required for us to have success.”
Benet goalies Ryan Kozowski and AJ Grzbek are both juniors and returnees, and been “playing really strong,” Coach Grzbek said. “We expect them to push each other all year. They are both capable of stealing games when we need them to.”
Eamon McDonnel, a transfer in to Benet last year, might be the breakout player this year, as he is filled with “a ton of upside potential,” Grzbek said.
The Catholic League might be its most competitive in years, especially with the arrival of Carmel. So, the powers should be Benet, Providence, Fenwick, Brother Rice, Saint Viator and St. Ignatius. And that’s not to say St. Rita, Mount Carmel or Marist will ever be sure-wins for anyone.
“I see the (Chicago Catholic Hockey League) CCHL as much more wide open this year,” Grzbek said.
Here is the season-opening Top 20 Rankings for Illinois High School Hockey Teams, as compiled by Ross Forman:
1. New Trier Green
2. Glenbrook North
4. Loyola Gold
5. Benet Academy
6. Providence Catholic
9. New Trier White
10. Saint Viator
11. Glenbrook South
12. St. Ignatius
13. Brother Rice
15. Highland Park
16. Wheaton West
17. Notre Dame
20. St. Rita
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.