By Ross Forman – Naperville Central is building for the future to revive the success of its past.
The Redhawks went 18-26 last season, the first under head coach Jack Wood who, despite a decade of coaching experience, was in his rookie season at the high school level.
It was a feeling out process – for the players and Wood, who did not participate in high school hockey as a player.
It also was the season to lay the foundation of a new future.
“We chose a young team to help create habits that they could learn and help lead the other players moving up, or joining the program in the future,” Wood said. “Injuries really put a damper on the end of our season, but we were trending in the right direction with the younger less-experienced players.”
This season started, well, about as good as it could have for Naperville Central, as the team captured the championship in the annual preseason Gator Cup, hosted by Crystal Lake South. The Redhawks defeated Lake Forest 4-2 in the finals.
Naperville Central entered the 2020 slate of this season with a 16-13 overall record. They are 10-9-0-1 in Illinois West Division play, and their 21-points puts them in 8th place, but only 10 points behind league-leading Waubonsie/Metea. The top of Illinois West also includes Naperville North (30 points), Hinsdale Central (28), Maine Township (27), Wheaton West (23), Neuqua Valley (23) and Glenbard (22).
“This is a team of passion,” Wood said. “Players care about how practices are going and (they) self-police each other to continue to push and get better as individuals and as a team. The theme of this year is, accountability – how we as a coaching staff can hold them accountable, how they can hold each other accountable, and how they can hold us accountable for our mistakes. This group is slowly becoming a family, which may be scary at the end of the year. With the exception of one team this season, we have proven that we can skate with anyone that we have faced thus far, and with our league being much better overall than last year, it really shows to our team’s perseverance and sacrifices.”
The Redhawks are certainly a team of persistence. “The kids don’t want to move on from skills and drills until they have found ways to become creative; going through the motions just doesn’t cut it anymore. Their persistence in games is getting better,” Wood said.
Emotion also has been prevalent this season for the Redhawks.
“Though all of us coaches want our players to play with emotion, we don’t want our players to become emotional – and that’s the fine line that makes good coaches great,” Wood said. “We are still teetering on that line, and it is very apparent when the line is crossed to emotional.”
Wood noted that this year’s team has strong youth leadership. The seniors are not the only leaders on the team, he said. “A lot of players have stepped up to make contributions both on and off the ice.”
Naperville Central skated into the championship game of the Gator Cup after stopping top-seeded Marmion, 5-4, in the semifinals. The Redhawks had only 12 skaters in the semis, “most of whom (had) been through some of the valleys with the team over the past few years,” Wood said. “Even though it was (just) a preseason tournament, it helped set the tone of what could be accomplished over the course of the season.”
Wood, 30, lives in Naperville and is the team’s hockey director too. His 12-year coaching career also includes time with the Sabres and Aurora University.
He is following a coaching legacy built by his dad, Jack Wood, Sr.
“The beginning of the season saw some success the players may have not been used to, (but) with the success came some speed bumps,” Wood said. “A lot of this season is new to the players, being able to compete as a team with the best teams in our league, and not rely on a couple of players to get the job done was exactly my goal when arriving at Naperville Central, and it all comes with a learning curve. But this was the foundation we as a staff have been trying to lay down, to create a sustainable and successful future for both the club, as well as our players.
“It is most important that we teach these fine young (student-athletes) the proper way to play the game so if and when they look to move on from the club, they can be successful anywhere.
“Although our team play is not as consistent as we would like it to be, there is a definite difference between when we started last season to where we are now.”
The Redhawks have 6 players with double-digit points so far in Illinois West play, led by sophomore forward Dylan Westphal, who is tied for the team-lead in goals (10) and assists (10). Junior forward Dylan Franks also has 10 goals, while senior forward Ben Burba also has 10 assists.
Franks is a quiet leader who plays physical and can be counted on for a big night almost every night, Wood said.
Burba is the heart of the team – with the captain’s C on his jersey. “He has been a leader since day one, but was overshadowed by some tremendous players and leaders older than him,” Wood said.
Junior defenseman Michael Becker “was raw and rough around the edges as a young freshman varsity player when I first got him, but over the last two years, he has been the most improved player and will be an absolute force to be reckoned with at the end of this year and into his senior season,” Wood said.
Westphal is certainly a key newcomer “who will put his body on the line and is always looking to make plays,” Wood said.
Senior defenseman Cameron Andrees, a co-captain, is the ultimate defenseman, Wood said. “He is dominate 1 on 1, sees the ice better than most, knows how to rush the puck and involves everyone to create lethal fast breaks.”
Sophomore forward Masato Lin, another newcomer and also an assistant captain, has stepped in as both a verbal and physical leader, Wood said. “He plays through everything and always has the right thing to say at the right time. His talent will continue to grow as he is always the example in practice on how hard everything should be done.”
Opponents need to track junior defenseman Becker.
“We had a phenomenal captain last season, Brenden Whelan, who took Becker under his wings and taught him the ropes. His maturation and ability continues to shoot through the roof; it is very exciting to see,” Wood said.
So how far can Naperville Central go?
“As far as they want to go,” Wood said. “If the team has composure, I believe there is no one we can’t skate with.
“It was never our goal to compete at the United Center this season. This group understands that they are the cornerstone to future success, and they are doing a phenomenal job embracing that role, helping create a foundation that could lead Naperville Central back to the UC.
“If you look at the collective talent at school right now, there is the ability to become something special. It is now on us as a collective to encourage those players that high school hockey is a great place to continue their development.”
On The Bench With … Naperville Central Head Coach Jack Wood
The 2020 Stanley Cup Champion Will Be: Boston Bruins
All-time Favorite Chicago Blackhawks Player: “Either Jeremy Roenick or Patrick Kane; you can throw Dominik Hasek in there as well.”
Hardest Slapshot on Naperville Central: Cam Andrees, a senior forward
Most Accurate Shot: Dylan Franks
Fastest Skater: Dylan Westphal
Best Playmaker: Masato Lin
Player Who You Could See As a Coach One Day: Cameron Moore, a senior goalie.
The Quote: “The western suburbs need some love when it comes to All-State selections, (as) there is a lot of talent that I think is overlooked. The coaches out here are amazing both in utilization and defense against our league’s top guns, which also shows how talented Illinois West is quickly becoming. Teams are now three lines deep with first and second line talent, a lot of which is grown within the club. Coming from college, I really appreciate the game management I have seen all year from the coaches and players as well as the officials. It really shows that Illinois High School has the ability to develop, both mentally and physically, players who may have been overseen elsewhere, or choose to show their school pride over other options. You always knew what you were running into when researching other teams and you would see any of the prominent clubs, and I believe the western suburbs are beginning to rapidly catch up. I think you will start to see more of a representation in the Red Division from teams in our area to compliment the dominate performances from our combined teams.”
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.