By Ross Forman
There’s plenty of optimism at Deerfield, where their overall numbers are up, team chemistry is the best Coach John Sclafini has ever seen, and Jack Gerber is only a freshman.
Let’s start with Gerber. He leads the team with 30 goals, including 7 multi-goal games. Gerber also has 9 assists and is chasing senior Christian DiBenedetto for the team lead in points; DiBenedetto has 16 goals, 26 assists for 42 points – 3 more than Gerber.
Gerber is, “getting better every game,’ Sclafini said.
The Warriors stand at 17-26-3 overall, 7-6-2 in the Gold League of the North-Central Division, behind Crystal Lake South, Lane Tech and Fox Valley.
“While only returning eight players from last year’s team and having 12 new varsity players, our biggest strength is chemistry/bonding. These boys do everything together, making the locker room very easy and the camaraderie second to none. This is the tightest-knit team I have ever been involved with in my 22 years as a head coach.
“We are a young team that has played more games already this year than we did all of last year, and I couldn’t be more proud. They stepped up to the plate after I challenged them to do more this year than any other year they have ever played. We are a work in progress that I feel is much further along than anticipated. Our overall record may not show it now, but I believe we are poised to make a run at our league championship this year.”
Sclafini, 44, who lives in Hoffman Estates, has been coaching high school hockey for seven years, and this is his third season at Deerfield. He also coaches his 8-year-old goalie (Joey) son’s mite team.
The Warriors went 19-21-7 last season.
“While we have had quite a few, the most memorable moment for me so far this season was Jack Gerber (being awarded) a penalty shot in our annual Rivalry game,” against Highland Park in front of a packed Glacier Ice Arena in Vernon Hills. “To see the enormous crowd chanting and going crazy and watching Jack try to compose himself was fun to be a part of.”
Highland Park triumphed over Deerfield Nov. 22, winning 6-3, though the game was much closer than it might look. The Giants struck early, building a 2-0 lead before DiBenedetto tallied twice, including a power play goal assisted by Evan Lutz and Gerber, to end the first period tied, 2-2. The Giants went ahead 3-2 late in the second, then made it 4-2 at 9:51 of the third period. Lutz scored a power play goal with 5:44 remaining in regulation-time to cut the score to 4-3. Highland Park scored its final two goals in the last two minutes, including an empty-net tally.
“The Rivalry Game is fun and entertaining, and we had a great game this year,” Sclafini said. “We lost, but I thought we played well enough to win and definitely earn some respect. The next few years are going to be special because we have so many young players that we will continuously grow as a program and compete at a higher level every year.”
Deerfield has four key returners this year: DiBenedetto; senior wing Lutz, who missed 18 games due to injury but is now fifth in points; senior defenseman Ethan Loewenstein, who was the lone returning defenseman from a year ago and now plays every other shift; and sophomore center Josh Fein, who is fourth on the team in points and the hardest working player on the team.
Key newcomers include junior defenseman Zach Goldman, who has played AAA hockey and “has more highlight reel hits than anyone in our league,” Sclafini said.
“When our offense is fore-checking and putting pressure on teams, we are hard to beat,” Sclafini said. “Our puck movement becomes unstoppable and our goal scoring sky rockets. We need to be a little more consistent in that area, but we definitely have the horses to get it done.
“(We) knew (defense) would be an area we needed to tighten throughout the season. I think our defensemen are understanding the D-zone much better and really stepping up their game. I am really excited for the playoffs”
Senior Matt Capek and sophomore Seth Miller split time in goal. Both have goals-against average greater than 4. “Both keep us in games we shouldn’t be in and are what teams need in goalies, cocky and determined,” Sclafini said.
“I think winter break came at the best time for us as we needed the time to heal; we have had too many injuries for my liking. We have a tough stretch of games heading into the playoffs, but I feel this will help us prepare for the playoffs and make us a better team.”
Sophomores Sam Paley and Hash Brown could be key to Deerfield’s skate down the stretch. “Both (are) on the verge of becoming mainstays on the ice with two very different styles,” Sclafini said. “Sam is a winger (who) is very calculated on his play and sees the ice well; Hash is a center (who) plays 100 MPH every shift and is involved in every play. These two can put us over the edge in the playoffs.”
New Trier White leads the Champions League of the North-Central, followed by BG/H/W, Highland Park, PREP and Loyola Maroon.
Libertyville leads the Sterling League of the North-Central Division, followed by the Kings, Lake Zurich, Fox Valley and the Lakers.
Deerfield has three games at Twin Rinks Ice Pavilion in Buffalo Grove to kick off its 2018 slate: against BG/H/W, Loyola Maroon and Highland Park.
The Warriors final regular-season game is Jan. 27 against D211.
“This year is a lot different than most where anybody can beat anybody on any given day. In previous seasons there were dominant teams that beat everyone. It is going to be a fun playoff, that’s for sure,” Sclafini said. “Our most improved player, in my opinion, is junior forward Dylan Platt, in his first year on varsity, and from day one till now, (he) is night and day (different). His confidence and all-around knowledge of the game has grown faster than anyone’s. He is an important piece to our power-play and his playing time continuously gets higher.”
“The goal for Deerfield is to be on the elite-level and that doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years and we are definitely going in the right direction.
“When I took over the program, we had 24 skaters (not including goalies) for two teams, 11 on JV and 13 on varsity. Two short years later we have 18 on JV and 19 on varsity. Former club President Chris Lutz and (I) talked about building the program to what it once was before I came here. With the help and strong support of the current Board we are getting there faster than anticipated. Like I said before, it doesn’t happen overnight … but it will happen.”
**Photos courtesy of Deerfield Warriors Hockey Club**
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.