By Ross Forman
Highland Park is one win away from No. 1 … playing against No. 1-ranked Loyola Gold, that is. In a win-or-go-home scenario.
Yep, the No. 17-seeded Giants open state tournament action on Tuesday night, Feb. 13, against No. 16-seed Carmel Catholic in Vernon Hills. That winner advances into the sweet-16 round of the Red Division – with the No. 1-ranked Ramblers awaiting, after Gold blanked No. 32 Sandburg, 6-0, on Feb. 6.
Highland Park coach Sean Freeman is optimistic the Giants can stop Carmel, and his optimism continues for Gold. Well, with a bit of humor blended in.
“They better look out … I have a better mullet than (Gold co-head coach) D.J. (LaVarre) and (Gold co-head coach) Blake (Sorensen) wishes he had my hands on the ice; I could dangle him out of his Team Canada jersey,” Freeman said, laughing. “Truly they are one of the best teams in the state, but in a one-game set, anything can happen. If we can beat Carmel and move on to Loyola, there could be an upset that shakes up the state tournament. We have great goaltending, six guys who have 20-plus goals and solid defensive defenseman who are tough and smart.”
Loyola Gold faces the Carmel-Highland Park winner on Wednesday, Feb. 28, in Bensenville.
The Giants, 31-12-7 overall, went 10-1 from Dec. 9 through the end of January, but then hit a huge landmine, losing two consecutive playoff games to Evanston, including 4-3 on Feb. 11, despite leading 2-0 at one point.
Still, the season has been better than expected, anchored by goaltending and leadership, Freeman said.
“This is a cohesive unit that loves the game of hockey,” he said. “There have been so many (different Highland Park teams over the years); each is unique (because of the) players that comprise the team. This year, the biggest thing that stands out is that each player truly likes each other and there is a brotherhood.”
The Giants finished 15-7-4 in the Champions League of the North-Central Division. They finished with 34 points, 10 points behind first-place BG/H/W.
Most important, the Giants defeated arch-rival Deerfield, 6-3, on Nov. 22, 2017, in Vernon Hills.
In Freeman’s 17 seasons in Highland Park, the Giants are 39-5-2 against the Warriors. And each win “feels amazing,” he said.
Freeman, 42, who lives in Highland Park, is in his 17th season as hockey director and varsity head coach. He also this season is the head coach for the Chicago Bulldogs squirt CSDHL team.
“Seventeen years ago, we had 9 players and no goalies. Today we have 67 total players and 3 teams,” Freeman said. “We have some of the best coaches in the state at every level with John Mannion, Cris Carder and Eugene Cha. The program has raised enough finances so that we now have skills practices (on) Monday nights where we bring in top skills instructors throughout Illinois, (such as) Russ Naumenko and Doug Altschul. We are also very fortunate to be to afford top-notch goalie coaching from Stu Gould. The extra ice and coaching has made the difference and our success on and off the ice bringing in the large numbers we have is a direct result of this.”
The reason for Highland Park’s success this season starts with senior wing Dylan Abt, selected to the AHAI All-State Team for the second year in a row. The 2018 Boys High School All-State game (watch here) was played on Monday, February 12, at the Edge Ice Arena in Bensenville.
“Dilly Dilly is what we call him, and he has the wheels of a Ferrari on him,” Freeman said of Abt. “He plays like every shift is his last and not only fires up his teammates, but puts all defenseman in the league on notice.”
Other key players this season for HP are:
- Jack Manone, freshman starting goalie;
- Sebastien Thomas, junior defenseman;
- Tyler Wiesman, senior defenseman; and
- Kyle Powers, senior center.
“The offense is deep, with six players who have 20 or more goals this season. On on any given night, a different player or line can go on fire and take over the game. The defense is very cerebral and disciplined. The defense plays a tough, take-no- prisoners attitude, led by senior defenseman Chuckie Levine Wolf.”
Freshman Alec ‘Showtime’ Powers, a freshman, brings creativity and swagger.
“We have the two best goalies in the league,” Freeman said. “While freshman Jack Manone leads the way, junior goalie Zach ‘Big Mac’ Gordon could be the No. 1 goalie on pretty much any other team in the league.”
Senior Ron Genender was the team’s leading scorer in league games, finishing with 18 goals and 7 assists. Junior George Giese had 7 goals, 11 assists.
There was a lot more parity in the league than past years, Freeman said. “There (was) no superstar in the league this year, which makes it more competitive.”
Freeman said the team-to-beat in the state tournament is, once again, New Trier Green. “(Trevians head coach) Bob Melton does as good of a job as anybody,” Freeman said. “Glenbrook North is the darkhorse (as Spartans head coach), Evan Poulakidas runs amazing systems and always has his players ready to go.”
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.