Two years ago, Ithaca High hockey player Wilson Gearhart was known as a “scrub” — somebody who really wasn’t relied on to perform in games.
He practiced with the team and he sometimes dressed for games, but got around only a half minute of playing time. Then-coach Rich Armstrong would use extra players such as Gearhart to act as the opposing team in scrimmages. Gearhart sat back, and waited for his chance.
His patience and persistence paid off: Not only did he get his chance, he climbed through the ranks in a hurry. He became a starter in his junior season and now serves as an assistant captain for the Little Red. It’s a far cry from his days on the bench.
“That was really special for me to be the guy that goes from getting a half minute of playing time to becoming the starter,” Gearhart said.
But while Gearhart was improving, the team was caught off guard when the school decided to replace Armstrong this season with the long-time coach of the girls team, Paul Zarach. Gearhart admitted that this was a “hard season to start off” because of the change, but said that the players started to like the new staff once they won their first couple of games.
Ithaca won seven of its first eight games under the new coach, but then went through a slump that they have yet to break. But despite not winning a game since Jan. 7, Gearhart and his team remain optimistic as they prepare for Saturday’s 6 p.m. state regional game in Buffalo against Section 6 champion Niagara-Wheatfield. The Falcons advanced to states with a 7-2 rout of Clarence in Monday’s sectional final.
In this week’s edition of “Five Questions,” we ask Gearhart about the current hockey season, his other favorite sports and his future plans.
How has this season gone for you so far?
This was a hard season to start off because of our coaching change … with Armstrong being our longtime coach and then being replaced, we didn’t see it coming. It was hard to overcome in the beginning. But we won a lot early on and now we like our new coaching staff … it started getting harder when we had a much tougher schedule. Right now I think we can compete and we’ve been working all season to do it.
With the playoffs coming up, how is the team preparing?
It’s a great time to work on what we learned about the other teams and work on a lot of basics as a team. I think we just have to get focused because we have a three- to four-week break between our last regular-season game and our playoff game. We’ve got a laid back attitude, so our coach is trying to get us more motivated and get us ready for our big playoff game. We can’t just turn it on at the end.
The main captain on your team (senior Luke Mendola) has missed this season due to injury. Do you feel that your role changed because of that?
Luke was the captain of our lacrosse team last year … he has been a leader on every team I have ever been on. He is a leader not just on the ice, but he is also a vocal leader. But he was out a good month — he wouldn’t even come to practice — as he recovered from his concussion. So I knew I had to step up in the locker room. I didn’t make as many big speeches but I tried to be vocal. If I could go back, I would try to give a little more motivation in the locker room. Luke is still not playing, but he is back around the team so he has taken back the role.
Do you play any other sports?
I also play lacrosse. I played a lot of sports when I was younger, but now just lacrosse and hockey. I don’t want to say either one is my favorite. I am planning to play Division III lacrosse in college but that’s because its much easier to do in college than hockey.
What are your plans for after graduation?
I am still not positive which school I will go to, but I have been talking to Jeff Long, the lacrosse coach at Ithaca College. There is a good chance I will end up there.