By Ross Forman
Nazareth used a third-period goal on Sunday, Dec. 10, in Geneva to grab a 2-2 tie with the smoking-hot Fox Valley Hawks, who had won five straight Gold League games in the North-Central Division. The Hawks had skated past Lake Forest Gold, Crystal Lake South, the CHFS Chiefs, New Trier Gray and Nazareth.
The Hawks rebounded Dec. 14, returning to the “W” column with yet another North-Central victory, coming from behind to defeat Lane Tech, 4-2. Now undefeated in their last 7 league games, the Hawks have improved to 11-9-3 overall, and are optimistic for the second half of the season.
“I still think we can play better; the kids are learning where we need to be and how to play at this level,” said Hawks head coach Phil Gabrielsen. “It was a tough start (to the season, playing) in a new league (and) we played some tough teams (early on, though we) never got totally outplayed. We did figure out that we have a lot to learn and work on with this group. We just kept stressing to get better and that it’s early, so (there’s still) lots of hockey to be played.”
The Hawks should be a force in the final months of the season, anchored by their team speed. “The kids need to be taught that we need the speed going both directions on the ice,” Gabrielsen said. “It amazes me how many kids coming to us have never been taught how to play in their own zone or (about) back-checking.”
The Hawks are skating their first season in the North-Central Division after previously calling the Suburban Hockey League home. The Hawks have only five seniors on the roster, and two of them have been out injured for most of the season, with no timeline for their return. Plus, another senior is new to the program and one played football for state champion Batavia, so he missed time. “Overall, we must play at a level that some are not used to, (but) we are getting there, (yet) still have work to do.”
Gabrielsen, 51, who lives in Geneva, has been coaching for 25 years, including 22 years in the high school ranks (Fox Valley Hawks, Naperville North, St. Charles East and York). This is his fourth season leading the Hawks, a team coming off a 25-10-4 record last season.
Mark Sokniewicz is the Hawks’ assistant coach, and has coached with Gabrielsen for 14 years. “Mark helps in all aspects of directing the hockey program,” Gabrielsen said. “He brings (a) wealth of knowledge and experience to the program.”
Pete Garvey is the team’s goalie coach and has worked with Gabrielsen and Sokniewicz for 10 years.
“I have a great staff (and) really believe in the saying, ‘You are only as good as your assistants,’” Gabrielsen said. “As a head coach, you can have your philosophy, but you need a staff that believes in the same things you do and teaches in similar ways. They also must want to learn, not only on ice, but there are off-ice issues that come up during a season. I include the staff in a lot of areas of directing the program.”
The Hawks are comprised of players from five schools: Batavia, Geneva, Kaneland, St. Charles East and St. Charles North. The team finished in second-place in the Suburban League for the past two seasons.
Key returners this season include Austin Devitto and Tyler Campise, seniors from St. Charles East; junior Johnny Ambrogio (St. Charles North), junior Dan Shaughnessy and senior Hunter Von Ruden (Geneva), plus senior Chris Monroe (Batavia), senior Tyler Nance (Kaneland) and junior Emerson Stopen (East).
Junior goalies Roberto Torres (Geneva) and Riley Clark (North) are both newcomers and have been playing well, Gabrielsen said.
Gabrielsen said the team’s offense blends a good mix of goal-scorers and playmakers. “I am still waiting for us to put together good pressure and finish,” he said.
Defensively, the Hawks lack experience. But the D has been doing a lot better, he said. “They are improving and understanding a lot more than earlier in the season. It is not only our defensemen, but our forwards in our zone. We have to spend a lot of time teaching the defensive game to forwards coming to us from other programs.”
Fox Valley add a second varsity team this fall, to go with two JV teams. The Varsity #2 team is coached by Dan and Chris Bednarek.
Gabrielsen is shocked at the club’s growth.
“I never thought coming in four years ago that we would be at the point where we are (at) now with four teams,” he said. “We have had, and still have, a great board of directors that support the coaches and their philosophy. It is so important that the board and coaches work together and don’t overstep their responsibilities. We keep the communication open between the board and coaches.”
Plus, he added, “We try to keep it fun and less stressful for the kids. We offer an alternative to the high-pressure, very busy hockey programs. We really don’t base the success of the program on wins and losses. We also don’t recruit; the kids who are here want to be here.
“The Fox Valley Hawks program is focused around school. School must come first. For instance, we make ‘finals week’ optional; we just use the ice that week as rat-hockey for the kids who can make it. There is life outside of hockey and we stress that with the kids and parents; they will not be in trouble if they have to miss. We also have kids playing football, golf, band, other clubs, whatever else they can do while in school. Hopefully that keeps it enjoyable for the kids when they do come to the rink.”
Gabrielsen said none of the five schools likely will split off next season to form its own team; there just are not enough kids from any one school. Plus, “it is a lot of work not only to start up a program, but to keep it going,” he added. “It takes a lot of commitment from a lot of people. It is not just throw pucks on the ice, get a coach and go. The board needs to have the time and energy to commit to the program. I have seen it in all the years of doing this, the board does a lot of work.”
Junior forward John Ambrogio (North) could be the team’s breakout star when playoffs start. “Johnny has the drive that will push him to become a better player and he can carry our team,” Gabrielsen said.
Photos courtesy of Phil Gabrielsen
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.