Ask Dan Francis about the fast start that the Stevens Point Area Senior High boys hockey team has got off to, and the Panthers coach will likely tell you his group is still a work in process and there’s a long way to go in the season.
Still, whatever the Panthers have been doing so far, it’s been working.
SPASH, which entered the week ranked sixth in the state poll, and is 6-0-1 after a nonconference tie with Ashwaubenon on Friday. The fast start has been fueled by a veteran group of players and a friendly schedule for the first few weeks of the season.
“It’s definitely nice to start off the way we have,” Francis said. “We have been fortunate to play five out of our six games at home but we have played very well during the stretch. We returned 16 players from last years team so that helps with the team chemistry. The team is coming together nicely but we all know that there is still a lot of season to go and we need to keep improving every day..”
The Panthers are one of the biggest success stories in the area so far, along with the Wisconsin Rapids boys team that came into Saturday with a 6-1 record and ranked No. 10, and the Central Wisconsin Storm which has picked up where it left off after winning the WIAA girls state hockey title in March.
The Storm, which is the top-ranked team in the state, improved to 9-0 with a 3-2 win over Eau Claire-Altoona on Friday and are riding a 26-game winning streak dating back to last season. The team has continued its success despite graduating nine seniors from last season and also having a change behind the bench as former assistant Jana Wimmer took over the program after Denny Drake retired in August.
The other area state qualifier from last year — the Wausau West boys — are still trying to find its stride this winter. The Warriors have reached the state championship game the past three years, but entered Saturday with a 4-3-1 record as the team has been plagued by inconsistent play and some breakdowns at crucial times.
“While there have been some breakdowns, the bigger concern is how we should react to them, whether it is defensive or forecheck rotations,” West coach Pete Susens said. “Our systems play has not been consistent as units on the ice. We have not developed the team play necessary to be effective, especially offensively. We are still searching for the right combinations of players, whether it is 5 on 5 or in special teams play.
The Warriors, who entered the week ranked eighth in the state, have faced a challenging schedule with just two home games so far and their three losses have come at the hands of top-ranked Notre Dame, No. 4 Fond du Lac and No. 9 Marquette.
“The schedule has been challenging, but it also has helped to pinpoint areas where we need to improve our game,” Susens said. “We need to be committed in the defensive zone, win more of the 50-50 battles for loose pucks, and finish in the offensive end. It has really shown us a lot of little bad habits we have that need to corrected in order for us to be successful. But we have the time to be able to correct those things.
One of West’s wins came against Wisconsin Valley Conference rivals Marshfield — a team that is trying to find its footing so far this year as well. Mac Alboreo and Schuyler Seyfert, the Tigers’ top goalie and scorer from last year, are playing junior hockey this year and the team has had a rotation of three inexperienced goalies trying to fill in for the loss of Alboreo. Marshfield, which has struggled to a 1-7 start, has also dealt with injuries to two key defensemen early this year as well — Bo Howard and Nelson Spindler.
“It will be a season of growth, not only physically, but mentally as well but we look forward to the challenge,” Marshfield coach Doug Steines said. Playing through some frustrations is hard to do but in order to progess it can only help us in the long run.
“I have been impressed with our work ethic throughout the team. We need to work hard in practice to imitate what we will see in games. That has shown in our games so far as it doesn’t matter what the score is. There are no quitters on our team so far.”