By Ross Forman
Deerfield skated to a 5-5 tie against Stevenson on Tuesday, Sept. 24, and then four nights later, the Warriors battled perennial-power Glenbrook North to a 2-2 tie.
The Warriors weren’t even ranked among the Top 25 teams to open the season, yet skated with two perennial powers.
There’s certainly joy in the Home of the Warriors.
“We were (thrilled with those games), but we also expect to compete. That’s part of the growth process,” said Deerfield head coach Randy Schlesinger, in his second season with the program.
“Our program used to revolve around one big rivalry game each year, (against Highland Park, but) we have an incredible wealth of strong opponents in our area. Scheduling regular-season games like those pushed the players to a higher level of consistency and pushes us to a better mindset. I’m sure those teams would tell you they don’t have many thrilling ties in September. Competing with the team (Stevenson) that shares our home rink, (Twin Rinks Ice Pavilion in Buffalo Grove), and the team down the street, (GBN), which has recently won state titles allows us to skate with a little more pride than yesterday, no doubt.”
Those back-to-back ties certainly showed the Warriors that “we have a higher ceiling because we were missing key players and didn’t play our best,” yet still scored key ties.
Deerfield also has defeated Glenbard, Notre Dame, Evanston, Warren and Latin School of Chicago, among others.
“We are blessed with a consistently-strong schedule of practice games and tournaments wrapped around our (North Central) league games. All our games to date have told us we have more work to do and there’s more fun to be had,” Schlesinger said.
Schlesinger, 54, a Chicago resident, is the Deerfield hockey director and has been coaching for 21 years. With multiple teams each year, this season marks 50 total seasons of coaching for Schlesinger.
“I am fortunate to have coached with, around, and against some great people, and this new season and current staff is among the best ever,” he said. “These (coaches) are incredibly dedicated to our players and make it fun to come to the rink every day. Dan Kaster works with both squads as assistant hockey director. Will Dodge is our new director of goaltending. Carl Johanson (assistant head coach – Red) and Alex Merritt (assistant head coach – White) are the dedicated coach for each team. Tom Schlesinger (brings) experience (to) coaching both teams.
“These guys work well together, always giving us consistent instruction at our practices and games.”
Deerfield was a young team last season, with only four seniors and a new head coach.
“The seniors did a great job helping us set a new direction. We tried to listen to the best ideas already established in the program, while also introducing ideas we know are successful for best culture and structure moving forward,” Schlesinger said. “We had (a lot of) wins and championships. There was a bigger picture, and most saw it. The players excelled in the classroom, with over 90 percent achieving Honor Roll in-season.
“As a program, we performed community service in small groups across the season at Cornerstone Community Outreach, the largest shelter in the city. I personally ran a leadership development program for all the players (during) the first spring, it’s is important to not only have the right captains but help them develop leadership tools. We established our pregame and in-game regimen. Our bench runs a certain way on game day, and that was a work in progress from a group that was used to sitting and moving anywhere in any way. We had regular video breakdown/classroom for each team at the school, to push our hockey IQ. We put an end to some practice habits that were not productive, while building a tree of drills to give the players the right reps in practice, with the right rest-to-repetition ratio.”
Deerfield finished 28-25-1 last season.
Last season’s JV team went 28-17-5, which is believed to be the most wins for a Deerfield JV team in 45 years of Deerfield High School Hockey.
“We’re still young (this season at the varsity level), but gaining experience quickly,” Schlesinger said. “If they all buy in (to the program), we can be the skating team we need to be. At our highest end, we have enough to make it interesting and a lot of fun.”
Deerfield is led by senior captains Hash Brown, Josh Fein, Jake Hoodack, and junior Luke Lewis. They set the tone and lead by example.
Two other key seniors are Sam Paley and Robbie Yastrow, plus senior goalie Seth Miller.
“One of many things I love about a high school season is, as the season goes on, the guys more and more play for the seniors—those skating their final games of (their high school careers). It’s a special feeling, so to me I look for those guys to stand out as seniors,” Schlesinger said. “We are also excited about the experience our younger players have gained, and how that will play out across another season.”
Deerfield defeated Latin School of Chicago 3-1 on Oct. 3 – and was 7-1-1 for October heading into its Teacher’s Night game on Oct. 22 against PREP in Buffalo Grove.
“We are defending much better and that keeps you in a lot of games,” Schlesinger said. “I’m grateful to the coaches who have scheduled games with us and helped us grow. (Glenbrook North head coach) Evan Poulakidas called right when we started and gave us spring games. He hasn’t stopped and it’s allowed us to build up a fun rivalry with GBN, our neighbor.”
That said, Schlesinger admitted that “there are coaches who don’t think Deerfield is a worthy opponent … we use that as motivation.”
Deerfield carries an “Expect to win” philosophy every time it steps on the ice.
“We are proud of the depth we’ve developed,” Schlesinger said.
Junior Seth Platt is a three-year player is a key, as are sophomore Gabe Fisher and juniors Russell Handelman, Vaughn Frankel and Blake Valfer. “(They) give us big minutes on the blue line and are all returning varsity defensemen,” Schlesinger said. “Offensively we return the leading scorer in the league: junior Jack Gerber. Juniors Andrew Kingsepp, John Sienicki and Daniel Schraiber are big and physical. Sophomore Thomas Komosa is just starting to show what’s coming. The seniors are all ready for the biggest minutes of their live and all are leading forwards.”
Key newcomers include sophomores Ryan Cappas and Ian Sornson. Plus, juniors Brady Gagerman, Jesse Reicin, and goalie Ryan Jensen moved up from JV last season.
And then there’s Luke Lewis – “He’s simply all we can ask of him, every rep of every practice, and every shift in every game,” Schlesinger said. “His presence over spring and summer meant a lot to our younger players. Our returning varsity guys were stoked about (him joining the team). Doing things the right way is contagious when it looks so smooth.”
Cappas has had a strong start as a defensive force who also can bring the offense. He is a talented two-way player and he’s just a sophomore.
Another Warrior to watch is Gabe Fisher, a sophomore with “a top-end skillset,” Schlesinger said.
“He sometimes critiques himself into a challenging mindset. But I’m seeing growth in so many ways from him, and that bodes well for breakout potential.
“We feel we have a number of players with breakout potential for this season and next.”
So how far can Deerfield go this season?
“At our best we have enough to make it interesting and win some fun games at the time of year you want,” Schlesinger said. “If I could see us practice in late-January, I could tell you more about this group; there’s much to do between now and then.”
On The Bench With … Deerfield Head Coach Randy Schlesinger
The 2020 Stanley Cup Champion Will Be: “Deerfield hockey alum Todd Reirden and his (Washington) Capitals have my nod. He’s been an important part of our effort.”
All-time Favorite Chicago Blackhawks Player: Pit Martin
Hardest Slapshot on Deerfield: “The guys say it’s Gabe Fisher, (but) I think Andrew Kingsepp. Neither guy has any idea where that next shot will go … I say that lovingly, maybe.”
Most Accurate Shot On Deerfield: “Jack Gerber might have the most accurate shot I’ve seen.”
Fastest Skater on Deerfield: “Luke Lewis is pushing the rest a touch.”
Best Playmaker on Deerfield: “Our leadership dynamic is unique and fun, a bit of yin and yang. Josh Fein and Hash Brown wear the (captain’s) C and each is a four-year varsity player. Both are excellent leaders and playmakers … and each leads and makes plays in his own way, different from the other, and yet together it’s a super cool combination. (I have) never seen a leadership duo like it but am certainly enjoying my time with them. They are both high-energy, with effort beyond question.”
Player Who You Could See As a Coach One Day: Hash Brown or Seth Miller
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.