Saint Ignatius has some big skates to fill – their own.
By Ross Forman – The Wolfpack is coming off an amazing 2018-19 season with 13 seniors. Assistant captain Christian Klein, a forward, was the school’s valedictorian and co-captain Dom Fischer was the school’s Athlete of the Year. All-State goalie Charles Doherty is now at the U.S. Naval Academy where he plays club hockey and the team’s leading scorer, Patrick Doyle, is at Northwood Prep in Lake Placid, N.Y.
It was, without question, “a very accomplished group with a lot of personality and character,” said head coach Matt Smith. “(Last year’s team) really put into perspective our purpose as coaches: helping to set up these dynamic young men for success in life.
“(There were) lots of memories and milestones but, unfortunately, we fell short of our goals both in the Kennedy Cup and in advancing further in (the) state (tournament).”
The Wolfpack finished 35-13-1 overall, 19-2-1 in the Chicago Catholic Hockey League.
Flash-forward to the 2019-2020 season. The Wolfpack is a younger team with more new players than those returning. It has a different identity, a lower key dynamic overall, but with the work-ethic and competitiveness as (strong as) any team. Ignatius has “less depth (than last season), but we are gaining valuable experience and growing as a team each month,” Smith said.
This year’s team has “a positive attitude and a growth mindset complemented by a workmanlike approach,” he said. The team is “very coachable … There is a collective understanding that the standards are high and (there is) a shared appetite to work to improve.”
The Wolfpack’s lack of depth and inexperience has shown through the first few months, as Ignatius now stands at 9-7-1. After a season-long 4-game winning streak, they were winless in their next 3 games.
“The competitiveness and intent is there. The care level is high and we have a strong leadership group who walk the walk,” Smith said.
The Wolfpack opened the season against No. 1-ranked New Trier Green and the Trevians only skated away with a 1-goal win, 4-3.
The Wolfpack defeated perennial power Providence Catholic 6-4 on Oct. 13, highlighted by two power-play goals on the same shift to start the third period and take the lead.
“It’s been a nice pace to the start of the season (with) preseason games against Scholastic (Hockey) League teams, (such as) New Trier Green, Glenbrook North, Barrington (and) OPRF, (which) prepared us well for a solid start to the Catholic League,” Smith said. “(We’ve endured) some growing pains with a younger roster, but we are competing. (We) have our work cut out for us to stay in the hunt.
“(We have been) getting more contributions from depth players (and) guys (are) understanding their roles better, playing within themselves and in a consistent way no matter the opposition. Overall, (we are) getting closer and more connected as a group.”
The Wolfpack offense is led by senior co-captain Max Pasiennik, who made the Illinois Showcase Team this fall. He is one of the top players in the Catholic League with “high character and is highly competitive … players feed off of his energy and example,” Smith said.
The Saint Ignatius defense is anchored by senior co-captain Sean Herber who is “tough to play against, hard on pucks, a force at both ends,” Smith said. Herber is a three-year varsity player who “helps sets the tone for our club both on and off the ice.”
One of the team’s key newcomers is sophomore goalie Sebastian Wigfield, who Smith said “has the size and drive to be a force in Illinois high school hockey.”
The Wolfpacks’ breakout player could be junior defenseman Nick Mathurin, thanks to his talent and athleticism. Sophomore forward Joey Velarde also must be watched on the ice.
“Our goal is always to win the Catholic League,” Smith said. “We’ve had success in the (league’s) regular-season the past couple of years, but have yet to find that next gear in the playoffs. (We) have to stay focused on the small picture – habits, concepts (and) details.”
Saint Ignatius will skate in the annual Loyola Thanksgiving Tournament in Wilmette, with round-robin games against Barrington, Deerfield and Glenbrook North.
The Wolfpack also will skate in the 200×85 Prep Invitational Dec. 6-8 in Mount Prospect, and the Jesuit Cup which Saint Ignatius will co-host with Loyola Academy in January.
“Providence and Benet are strong, accomplished programs that play hard, (and) we have already lost once to each,” Smith said when asked to size up the Catholic League. “Carmel Catholic is improved and a threat (and) you can never sleep (when playing against) Saint Rita.”
Smith, 46, lives in Chicago and is a project manager for the Hispanic American Construction Industry Association. He has been coaching for more than 15 years, and this is his fourth season at Saint Ignatius.
“My first experience coaching was as a camp counselor (during the) summers of high school and later as a minor instructor with CanAm Hockey summer camps, including Stars Hockey Camp in Guelph, Ontario (during the) summers of college,” said Smith, who also has coached locally for the Chicago Blues, Chicago Jets and Chicago Stallions.
Plus, Smith spent the 2013-14 season as JV coach at Evanston Township High School.
“This is my fourth season as hockey director/head varsity coach for Saint Ignatius. We won the Catholic League President’s Trophy the last two seasons, lost in the Kennedy Cup Finals both times to Saint Viator, (was) named CCHL Coach of the Year each of my first three seasons, and the AHAI High School Coach of the Year last year.”
Smith also served as a Regional Scout for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program (NTDP) in 2014-15.
He is joined on the Wolfpack bench this season by new assistant coach Jeff Rogers, who has been “a great addition and is already contributing in a variety of positive ways,” Smith said. “(Rogers) and associate head coach Spencer Montgomery are integral to our success and culture. They complement and push each other in the right ways.”
(Photos by Luke Hales/SICP Athletics)
On The Bench With … Saint Ignatius Head Coach Matt Smith
The 2020 Stanley Cup Champion Will Be: “I said Tampa last season … what do I know?! Maybe it will be Colorado as a sleeper, if they stay healthy. Washington is a force and Boston is right there. A power move at the deadline could put either of them over the top.”
All-time Favorite Chicago Blackhawks Player: “Jonathan Toews in his prime and Niklas Hjalmarsson, (who is an) unsung player.”
Hardest Slapshot on Ignatius: Sean Herber
Most Accurate Shot: Max Pasiennik
Fastest Skater: “Will Gerami, but Nick Mathurin is right on his heels.”
Best Playmaker: Sean Doyle
Players Who You Could See As a Coach One Day: Sean Doyle, Max Pasiennik and Sean Herber – “All think the game at a high level.”
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.