By Ross Forman – The co-op Spartans, with the No. 15 seed in the Illinois High School Hockey State Tournament, saw their shot at glory end Feb. 16 in Romeoville. They lost 3-2 in overtime to the No. 25 Cobras.
The Spartans, though, are already motivated and excited for next season.
“Next year should be a great year for our varsity team,” said Spartans head coach Colin McAuliffe. “We are retaining an all-Star caliber goalie for the next two seasons, and we have eight young, dynamic forwards heading into their junior and senior seasons. Having three teams, our club is set up to develop and prepare players to jump up to the next level of play. Both of our JV squads are having very successful seasons, (so) I am excited to see where these players are at come tryout time.”
The Spartans mix players from Lemont, Romeoville, Bolingbrook and Lockport – and they skate in the IHSHL North Central Division.
“There were a lot of new faces on the team this year,” McAuliffe said. “We had a very young group of forwards with six senior defensemen anchoring the blueline. We’ve jumped into a new league, seeing teams the club has never seen before, but we faced all of our challenges ahead of us. The players all stepped up and met everything head on. We believe the season was very successful for our program overall.
“Goaltending was a big strength. Having two goalies in net that you know are going to be on every night has really helped ease the team in front of them, and they kept us in every game this year. Our fore-check also was a very big thing that attributed to our success this season.
“Our biggest weakness was inconsistency. We got off to a hot start, but once other teams got rolling, our younger group finally started to see the real transition from JV to varsity hockey – speed, less time to make a decision, and not being able to recover from mistakes as fast. Those things would be there in spurts throughout the season, but by the end, every player was on the same page and playing our systems correctly.”
The Spartans went 9-10-5 in the North-Central Gold League, which Leyden ultimately won. “I was really surprised by the resiliency of the players to never get down and hang their heads after a tough loss,” McAuliffe said. “A vast majority of our games were decided by one goal either way. The players would always find a way to dig deep in those three-game weekends and bring it every night until the final buzzer.
“One of my favorite games actually was the third game of the season. We had a 5-4 come-from-behind win after scoring 4 goals in the 3rd period. We went 3-0 in a weekend tournament against one of the top teams from the West Division, a team from the upper league in our division and a travel team from Michigan. The one goal that stands out in my head was from that game. We were nearing the end of a penalty-kill when senior defenseman Charlie Retusnic picks the puck up and throws a bank pass off the boards from behind our net to our player leaving the box for a breakaway goal. Charlie was just getting to the bench for a change as we scored. As I was telling him what a great heads-up play he made, he nonchalantly says ‘Oh nice, we scored; I was just trying to get the puck out. But thanks anyways, coach.’ Charlie has this aloof, deadpan delivery sometimes. I don’t think I stopped laughing for a good five minutes on the bench.”
McAuliffe, 28, lives in Tinley Park and is the assistant brewer/taproom manager for Soundgrowler Brewing Co. He has been coaching for 8 years, 6 years at the high school level and 4 with the Spartans.
He was the varsity assistant at Plainfield from 2012-14, and also has coached for Romeoville and the Huskies.
Some of the key players this season for the Spartans were:
Senior goalie Riley Cronin (Lockport);
Senior defenseman Matt Garcia (Lockport);
Senior forward Bailey McCarthy (Lockport);
Senior defenseman Mike Bulanda (Lemont);
Junior forward Mike Garcia (Lockport); and
Junior forward/defenseman Jack Crowley (Lockport).
Some of the key Spartan newcomers were:
Sophomore goalie Chris Miskiewicz (Lockport);
Junior forward Jack Swenson (Bolingbrook);
Senior defenseman Tyler Hedrich (Lockport); and
Sophomore forward Paul Contreras (Lockport).
“I think an early season trip to Madison, Wisconsin really helped the boys bond together as a team,” McAuliffe said. “After that trip, our defensive play improved tenfold, and the players started having accountability to each other on and off the ice. This also led to our players understanding and trusting our systems set in place resulting in us playing a very sound hockey game in all three zones.”
Goalie Chris Miskiewicz certainly will be a key to the Spartans’ drive in the 2020-21 season. “He puts work in both on and off the ice, and his game has been getting better every week,” McAuliffe said. “For forward Jack Swenson, his upcoming senior year will be an important one. He was consistently our hardest working player every practice and game this season. He played top line minutes and both sides of special teams for us, with that experience and his work ethic I believe Jack will have a very successful senior year for us.”
On The Bench With … Spartans Head Coach Colin McAuliffe
The 2020 Stanley Cup Champion Will Be: “Pains me to say either of these, but Colorado Avalanche vs. Boston Bruins in the final, with Boston winning in 6.”
All-time Favorite Chicago Blackhawks Player: Niklas Hjalmarsson
Hardest Slapshot on the Spartans: Matt Garcia
Most Accurate Shot: Mike Garcia
Fastest Skater: Jack Crowley
Best Playmaker: Jack Swenson
Player Who You Could See As a Coach One Day: Matt Garcia or Bailey McCarthy. “Both of these young men are all hockey, all the time, just as I was their age.”
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.