- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Storylines abound as hockey teams push for titles
By MICHAEL REID
There are plenty of intriguing plots as Southern Maryland teams head toward the holiday break in the Maryland Student Hockey League.
Beginning behind the bench are three coaching changes.
Tim Higgins, who took over the Thomas Stone team midway through last season, is hoping to start anew with a program that hasn’t won a game in four years.
“I told the kids, ‘You haven’t won in four seasons, why are you here?’ and they weren’t upset, they just said, ‘We love the game,’” the 47-year-old Higgins said of his first meeting with his players. “I said, ‘OK, if you guys are willing to work hard and do what’s asked of you and don’t waste my time and I won’t waste your time and hopefully we’ll be able to put something together and get better.’ And they’ve done that.”
Higgins, who has coached in the Southern Maryland Sabres organization, said he’s already seeing improvement in his team, which is comprised of players from Chopticon, Great Mills and McDonough high schools.
After scoring just 12 goals all of last season, the Cougars have already scored six in just two games.
“I don’t want to say we’ll never be able to contend against the teams like Leonardtown and Huntingtown and Northern, but in the short time I’ve worked with these kids I’ve seen a vast improvement on how they work together and how they interact and how they deal with one another on the bench,” said Higgins, who works at the Pentagon for the Navy. “They would get frustrated on the ice and I have them playing aggressive but not dirty and they all know when the whistle blows to stop what they’re doing and skate away. They’ve done everything I’ve asked, so honestly I couldn’t be more happy in the way they’ve listened and in the way they’ve tried to apply themselves.”
Erik Larsen takes over at Northern after serving as an assistant coach to Mark Clark the previous four seasons. Though his son has graduated, Larsen wanted to see the program continue its upward swing and it will try to do so with a brand-new goaltender in James Layman.
“I kind of volunteered because I knew our team needed a goalie,” said Layman, who is using borrowed goalie equipment, “and I didn’t want the kids at our school not to be able to play.
“Even though he has never played the position of goaltender before, James bravely volunteered,” Larsen said of the former defenseman.
And Layman has made an impact right off the bat as he’s won all four of his starts and sports a 1.50 goals against average.
“First game I was a little bit nervous, but I have a good team in front of me and they helped me out,” he said. “So far I think it’s going pretty well. I don’t know [what the biggest adjustment was], there’s a lot of them. I’m used to defense, so the speed of the game is different. I was used to quick thinking, but as goalie I sit back and watch the play develop a bit. It’s a bit intimidating and I was nervous, I’d feel bad if I let one in or do something to mess up the team.”
But Layman will have his work cut out for him as Michael Santiago is out at least half the season with a broken collarbone.
To make matters worse, Northern decided to become a pure a team that consists entirely of Northern High School players a move that makes them eligible for postseason play but leaves them with just 12 players.
“We had a team meeting and despite the challenge of a small team,” Larsen said, “the players unanimously voted [to be a pure team].”
Gordy Bonnel is the third of the head coaching changes as he sets up his office behind the Leonardtown bench.
Bonnel, who grew up in New Jersey and played hockey in New England, moved to the area in the 1970s after his military father was transferred. He is currently the operations director for a construction company. The 50-year-old will also be directing a pure team.
“I think ice hockey down in this area is coming into its own and that hockey is growing,” said Bonnel, who needed 14 Leonardtown students to make a pure team and had more than enough after 20 tried out for the team. “It’s growing and you see a lot more turnout in the area from clubs like Bowie [Bruins] and the Sabres. [Hockey here has] gone from in-line hockey and one or two rinks around the beltway to where it is now. It’s definitely on a growth pattern here.”
Shaping up for a good season
Huntingtown, a Class 2A Capital Cup finalist last season, fell to Atholton in the championship game. The Hurricanes are on a mission to get back but it won’t be easy after losing several key players.
The 2012-13 season will be the swan song for St. Mary’s Ryken scoring standout Nathan Blondino, who scored 76 goals and had 105 points last season. But Blondino the state record holder for goals and points will miss some time after suffering a leg injury in a lacrosse tournament late last month and his return is unknown.
Penn State had enquired about the senior for its new Division I program, but Blondino has already committed to Army for lacrosse.
Ryken suffered another devastating loss when Kalle Kuusisto returned to his native Finland after a 104-point campaign last season. In addition, junior Tucker Rhodes will play hockey for the first time and is starting in goal.
“This is his first time playing ice hockey but, thanks to his experience playing lacrosse, he is adapting to the ice very well,” said Ryken head coach Chris Palombi, who in his fourth season is the longest-tenured head coach. “He has already taken the team on his back in a couple games this season. He's very driven to improve and help his team every time he steps on the ice.”
At La Plata, Matt Golanka is teaming up with Geoff Howard to form the area’s only tandem head coaching position. Both are in their third seasons, are from Buffalo, N.Y., are Level IV USA Hockey coaches, are Charles County teachers and co-coached together last season.
They head a La Plata team which lost 10 players to graduation.