By Ross Forman
First-year Loyola Academy girls hockey coach Rob Messner doesn’t mince words when asked about the Ramblers’ goals for the season: “To be playing at the United Center in March. Bottom Line.”
Messner, 42, who lives in Skokie, is the owner and head instructor at Messner Hockey. He has 12 years of coaching experience and this is his fourth in the high school game, though the previous three seasons he’s been an assistant coach to Jim Philbin with the Glenbrook South boys’ team.
He also has coached mites through bantams with the Glenview Stars for the past nine seasons. Messner started coaching girls’ hockey three seasons ago, with two U12 state second-place finishes and a third-place finish last year with U14s.
Now standing on the Ramblers bench is a homecoming for Messner.
“It is an honor and a pleasure to have been asked to return to my alma mater to take over the girls program. Loyola Academy is a special place and the Loyola Academy Hockey Club is a special program. Both mean a lot to me and both are extremely important to me and to who I am as a hockey player and now a coach, but more importantly as a person,“ Messner said.
“This year’s team has a pretty strong returning core group after graduating only two players from last year’s team. There are some big-time leaders on this roster and they all do it in their own ways. Some of the older girls are more vocal in the dressing room. Some are more vocal on the ice and bench during games. Others are quiet and lead by example. It’s really a great mix as everyone reacts differently to different types of leaders. There is also a nice group of incoming freshmen with some talent.”
The Ramblers‘ biggest strength is, team chemistry.
“The older girls have been through a lot together as teammates, (including) a state championship season, a runner-up season and then a season last year that got off to a tough start. I think it is that tough start last year that has really bonded this group of returners. The older girls have already brought all the freshman in. These girls really get together well. If you were to walk into the dressing room, you would think they have all been teammates for years.”
Senior Kayla Johnson is back for her third season in goal, and certainly one of the main reasons for Rambler optimism this season.
“So far, I think one of our biggest weaknesses is just trying to do too much,” Messner said. “There are some extremely talented, skilled young ladies on this team, but sometimes it can get the best of them. Instead of making the smart, easy play that is there, they opt to go for the spectacular highlight reel play. When we go up against the New Triers and the Fenwicks of the world, that can be an issue. The stronger teams make big mistakes look that much bigger. The stronger teams will put mistakes in the back of our net.”
Loyola’s top returners are:
• Senior captain Gabbie Ciesla, who plays forward and defense;
• Senior captain Jane O’Connor, defense;
• Senior Ellie Kroeger, defense;
• Junior Jayna Park, center;
• Junior Jenna Rekoske, center;
• Junior Claire O’Shaughnessy, forward;
• Junior Elle Joubert, forward;
• Sophomore Caroline Smith, center; and
• Sophomore Bryn Jones, forward.
“I have high expectations for this group. There is no reason not to,” Messner said. “They were right there last year, taking eventual state champion New Trier to the limit, even after getting off to a slow start early in the season. You take that and add another year of experience for some of the younger girls and a strong freshmen group, and of course expectations are high.”
Key freshmen newcomers include Karly Kolssak (D/F), Deanna Buenzow (D/F), Alejandra Ubarri (D), and Tierney Purcell (D).
The Ramblers won three in a row after losing their season-opener.
“I have seen a lot of good things and have also seen some things we need to clean up a bit,” Messner said. “Girls are still getting used to me as their new coach. I take a little different approach than a lot of coaches. I am not a big systems guy. I like to talk more about concepts as opposed to systems. I think putting young players into ‘systems’ limits them as players and especially restricts their creativity with and without the puck. Giving them some concepts and options allows them to be creative as players.
New Trier looks primed to defend their state championship, but several are poised the skate past the Trevians, including Fenwick and Naper Valley.
Messner, naturally, hasn’t forgotten that Loyola Gold, the school’s top-tiered boys’ team, is the defending state champion. And he was a GBS coach last season that went 3-1 in games against the Bob Melton-coached New Trier Green juggernaut.
“The highlight off my high school coaching career to this point was going 3-1 against New Trier Green last season. That was the first time since I was in high school that I was involved in a victory against Green,” Messner said. “But I am looking forward to making many more new highlights this season and beyond with the Loyola Academy girls’ program.”
To that, Messner stressed that the Ramblers must “play our game, play to our strengths and try to limit the big mistakes. Clean smart simple hockey and we will be alright.”
Junior forward Elle Joubert could be a shining star come playoff time. She already has a three-game multiple-goal streak. “Elle has all the tools which is not surprising to me since her father is a great hockey coach in the area,” Messner said. “Sometimes I don’t think she realizes it. Sometimes she surprises herself with what she does on the ice. That said, I still think she has a very high ceiling as far as potential. When she puts it all together, she will be a force on this team this year and next.”
On The Bench With … Loyola Girls Head Coach Rob Messner
Favorite NHL Team: Edmonton Oilers
Favorite NHL Players: Auston Matthews (current) and Steve Yzerman (former)
The 2019 Stanley Cup Champion Will Be: Toronto Maple Leafs
Hardest Slapshot On Loyola: Karly Kolssak
Most Accurate Shot On Loyola: Tierney Purcell
Best Coaching Advice: “When I started coaching, Wally Kormylo told me to, ‘Have fun with it and just do what you know how to do. You know how to skate. You know how to play the game. So just do it and the kids will imitate.’ To this day I demonstrate every single drill myself.”
Hockey Pet Peeve: “Sticks up off the ice at all levels of hockey. Drives me crazy.”
Hockey Superstitions: “I would eat two hot dogs before every game as a player. Today as a coach I listen to (the) same playlist on (my) drive to rinks before every game.”
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.