Landon School ice hockey captain Graham Shue and coach Chan Gammill stood in an empty locker room at Rockville Ice Arena earlier this month long after the rest of the team had emptied out, locked eyes and knew what the other was thinking.
The Bears had just tied Walt Whitman, 4-4, in a game they likely should have won.
“It was honestly a wakeup call,” Shue said. “The last two years, we haven’t faced that much adversity. Even since my freshman year, we haven’t faced that much adversity. So to get that in the beginning of the year, it was a good time.”
After going 41-2-1 over the last two years en route to two Mid-Atlantic Prep Hockey League championships, Shue’s assessment is on target. Its been smooth sailing. After losing several key seniors from last year’s roster, the Bears’ lineup and style of play are different this season, but expectations haven’t waivered. A third straight championship is the goal.
The road there will have more bumps along the way. Half of the Bears’ (4-0-1) roster is new to varsity. But the transition to varsity for younger players is mitigated by a program built to reload.
It starts at the middle school level. Children can start attending Landon in third grade and can start playing on the middle school ice hockey team in sixth grade. Gammill works with players all the way up through the system and he credits the communication between himself and coaches at the junior varsity and middle school levels for making smooth transitions between ranks of play.
“We really have a hockey program and not just a team,” Gammill said. “Our coaching staff, they’re incredible and we’re all on the same page. ... We know our players well. That’s what’s best about our school. We know the junior varsity players, we know the middle school players. While we have tryouts, we know boys before tryouts begin and have ideas about them.”
Shue and senior Will Buckingham played on the middle school level. Buckingham said the younger players look up to varsity and it helps that they share locker rooms at the Rockville Ice Arena, allowing the future of Landon’s program to see what it means to be a varsity player.
This year, two freshmen are on the top forward line — Michael Soraci and Junmo Kim.
“I think it’s a testament to our coaching staff,” Shue said. “It shows our coaching staff is able to implement new systems and works with who we have. You can’t reminisce on success over the last two years. They’ve been telling us, I’m not going to say we’re worse or better, we’re just different and that’s how it’s going to be and we need to play differently than the last two seasons.”
With offensive-minded players like Matt Potolicchio, Max Greenwald and Mike Anderson lost to graduation, last season’s team played a wide-open style of hockey.
This year, the team is focusing more on the forecheck and getting gritty goals in front of the net.
It also has helped to have Sam Kroll, Landon’s goalie during last season’s playoffs, back in the net.
“That’s where it starts. He’s the anchor of our team,” Shue said. “Having a guy like that makes a big difference and hopefully carries us far.”
In their most recent win, a 2-1 victory against Severna Park, Gammill thought the team had the best performance of the season.
They faced a hot goalie, something Buckingham said has happened multiple times this season, and despite overloading him with shots — the Bears finished with a 60-12 shot advantage — the puck was not finding the back of the net.
No one panicked and the team stayed true to its system.
“They couldn’t get past that goalie. It had to have been his birthday or something,” Gammill said. “But being in tight games, that gets teams to realize who they are quickly and early. ... So one big positive is not only are we winning, we’re finding our identity as a team, figuring out our roles, where they’ll contribute and it’s happening faster than any other year.”
The Bears still have the heart of their schedule ahead of them. They’ve only played one MAPHL game, a 3-1 win against Calvert Hall, and still have to play DeMatha, Georgetown Prep and Gonzaga. But with the way things are clicking early, there’s no reason to believe Landon can’t win for a third straight season.
“A lot of us think it’s definitely possible,” Buckingham said. “It’s just not going to be as easy as the last two years. ... It’s going to have to come from hard work and dirty goals. Dirty goals count. So it’s not out of the question, but it’s going to be very difficult.”