By Ross Forman
Crystal Lake South is one of the great stories so far this season.
The Gators tied their first two games of the season, against Benet Academy and Hinsdale Central in their own Gator Cup, held in West Dundee. They then won their next nine games, giving up more than two goals only once in that stretch, which included wins over Naperville Central, Warren, Fox Valley and others.
CLS lost its first game of the season on Wednesday, Oct. 24, falling 5-1 to LZMW in Vernon Hills.
“The first month of the season has been better than I could have expected,” said first-year head coach Nick Madonia, who replaced Rich Perillo. “Aside from winning games, the team has seen different players stepping up in each game, and a lot of overall team growth.
“This has, by far, been the best month I have had to start a season, and I don’t think I have ever been on the bench for a team that has been on this long of a (undefeated) streak.”
Madonia, 27, who lives in North Aurora, is the adult hockey director at Fox Valley Ice Arena. He has been coaching for seven years, yet this is his first season in the high school game.
He coached the Northern Illinois University ACHA DII team last season.
Madonia also has previously coached for the Skokie Flyers and Geneva Cyclones, and he was back-to-back Coach of the Year award-winner while at NIU.
“Everything about the (CLS) program seemed like a great fit,” Madonia said. “When Rich Perillo reached out and let me know that he was retiring, we had a long conversation about the program. With being out of high school hockey for a long time, I was unsure what to expect, but he laid everything out for me and made it seem like it would be a good fit. When I got brought in for the first interview, I felt like I was able to connect with the board right away, and we had a really good conversation about my views on hockey and coaching. I knew I had really found my home when I got on the ice with the team for the spring season. I never felt like there was a ‘learning curve’ with the team.”
Madonia played for the Loyola Academy JV team as a freshman, then for Loyola Maroon as a sophomore and junior. He switched to the Express CSDHL team as a senior and was named captain of that team, as he was his second season on Maroon.
He played his first two college seasons for Robert Morris University DIII, then his junior and senior seasons for Northern Illinois University DIII, and was named captain as a senior.
“I played for a lot of really good coaches growing up and through college, so I was able to learn a lot from them. I still keep in contact with a number of them, and will call them for advice regularly,” Madonia said. “This year’s (CLS) team has been a lot of fun so far. We have a great mix of younger players, including freshman Bryce Sturm and sophomore Jason Dabrowski, along with junior Midas Bacidore and senior Danny LaRue. This team keeps surprising me.
“Going into the season, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew we had talent, but I have not watched a ton of high school hockey over the last few years, so I didn’t know where we would stack up. This team keeps finding another level of play, and I’m very excited to watch the progression over the rest of this year, and the future.
“We are well balanced, with standout players on offense, defense, and two strong goalies.”
But, the Gators have a small roster, “so staying healthy and consistent will be very important to us the rest of the year,” he said.
The top returners include senior goalie Hunter Schmidt. Others of note are:
• Senior defensemen Evan Jewson and Danny LaRue;
• Senior forward/defenseman. Michael Helm;
• Senior forward Nick Losch; and
• Junior forwards Midas Bacidore and Dominic Tanzillo.
“We are definitely a team that can surprise some come state playoff time, if we keep progressing at the rate that we have been so far this season,” Madonia said.
Some of the key newcomers include senior goalie Amanda Sincere and sophomore forward Jason Dabrowski.
Bacidore is leading the Gators on offense with 14 goals, 5 assists in 11 games played.
Sturm has 6 goals, 7 assists; Helm has 2 goals and a team-high 9 assists.
“When I saw Midas skate in the spring season, I knew that we had a special player,” Madonia said. “He has the ability to not only create his own shot, but also to create for his line mates. He has been playing primarily with younger players, and I believe that he has helped raise their level of play. He is a great competitor and someone who we look to when we need a big shift.
“I can’t say enough about Bryce. He has no ceiling. He is extremely talented and one of the hardest working skaters on the team. It isn’t easy for a freshman, especially one who hasn’t really hit his growth spurt yet, to come in and take games over playing against teams full of juniors and seniors, but that is exactly what he has done.”
Madonia added, “Our goals for this season are to win our league championship, and to make a splash in the Red Division,” of the state tournament.
Junior defenseman Jack Turner could be the breakout player who helps lead the Gators into key playoff victories. “He has the size (6’4) to be a difference-maker. We are looking forward to seeing his growth this year,” Madonia said.
On The Bench With … Crystal Lake South Head Coach Nick Madonia
Favorite NHL Team: Chicago Blackhawks
Favorite NHL Player: Alex Ovechkin
The 2019 Stanley Cup Champion Will Be: Tampa Bay
Hardest Slapshot on CLS: Evan Jewson
Most Accurate Shot On CLS: Midas Bacidore
CLS Player Who Could Someday Be A Coach: Alex Tatum
Best Coaching Advice Ever Received: “Learn how to connect with each individual player to get the best out of them.”
Hockey Pet Peeve: “Coasting on the back check.”
Hockey Superstition: I’ve had a cup of coffee at the start of every game I coach since I started.”
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.