The ice doesn’t change, and neither do the goals. The Elder hockey team’s goal is steady and unchanging each year. To achieve their goal — win a postseason hockey game — the Panthers will have to replace 11 valuable seniors, and continue to improve each time their blades cut into the cold, unforgiving ice.
Since the OHSAA officially sanctioned hockey six years ago, the Panthers have not won a postseason game. For coach Joe Del Prince, the goal is important, but the longtime Elder coach knows the end result is a product of the journey.
Del Prince needs a young team to come together, and use each game as a spring board for success.
“We lost a lot, 11 seniors to graduation,” said Del Prince, who’s been coaching the Panthers for 14 years.
Even with the exodus, Elder has nine skaters back who contributed last season.
Junior Ron Larkin is the team captain. Larkin, a left-winger, was a second-team selection in the Southwest Ohio High School Hockey League last year. Del Prince said Larkin, who was the Panthers’ leading scorer last year with 29 points, has already scored six goals in three preseason games this year.
Senior right-winger Matt Wall is the alternate captain. Wall, a first-team All-SWOHSHL selection last year, finished with 28 points and a team-high 15 goals last year.
Junior defenseman Michael Wynn also returns as an alternate captain this year after he was voted the team’s most valuable player at last season’s banquet. Wynn, who also earned first-team All-SWOHSHL last year, was described by Del Prince as a fantastic two-way player.
Senior goaltender Bob Wynn returns between the pipes. Wynn was injured most of last season, and sophomore Jacob Henn filled in last season and earned second-team All-SWOHSHL.
Del Prince said, “If you’ve got a goalie you can win any game,” and it appears the Panthers have two.
Senior defenseman Stan Groszek and senior center Josh Antone both return to the starting lineup. Groszek is a “defensive defenseman” and Antone’s “excellent on the penalty kill,” said Del Prince.
Sophomores Charlie Garnett and Matthew Mahon both started as a freshman. Garnett was second-team all-league and his coach said “he’s the whole package.” Mahon centers the Panthers’ front line and has “probably the highest hockey IQ on the team,” Del Prince said.
Elder, which shares the Cincinnati Gardens with St. Xavier, La Salle and Moeller, also welcomes freshman defenseman Jacob Hofmeyer, a guy Del Prince has been impressed with.
This season will be about how the experienced players help bring along the newcomers.
“We’re gonna lean heavily on the returning players,” said Del Prince, who added he’s excited to see what develops from the newer guys.
St. Xavier’s hockey program shouldn’t skip a beat with former assistant coach Jason Kamp taking over as head coach for Adam Tramonte this season.
St. Xavier will be tasked with replacing Justin LeFevre, the program’s all-time leading scorer, who graduated last spring. The Bombers won a couple times in the postseason tournament last year, so they’re eager to improve upon that standing.
Although the Bombers lost a lot to graduation, Kamp said with 89 guys in the hockey program, the junior varsity has been more competitive, “so these guys moving up (to varsity) have a fair amount of potential.” Kamp added that St. Xavier has the most players in the state.
“We’re lucky we have nearly 89 kids … 56 play on our reserve team, which is a learn-to-play, learn-to-skate, fun-first kind of environment,” said Kamp. “It’s really exploded in popularity; it’s given a whole bunch of kids a chance to wear the jersey.”
The Bombers have six returning varsity players this season and four of them are senior co-captains. Nick Carmichael, Jacob Barnes, Frank Auberger and Ben Harding are co-captains.
Carmichael, a center, was described by Kamp as a really versatile player who does a little of everything. Kamp said Carmichael plays “with an edge; easily one of our toughest fore-checkers, and hopefully a goal scorer.”
Barnes, listed 6-foot-2, 175 pounds, is a left-winger, “about the most coach-able player on our team; he does a lot of the little stuff, like blocking shots … a big part of the game, which takes a lot of courage and toughness,” said Kamp.
Auberger, a defenseman, is a long, lanky, cerebral player. “He’s also embraced the physical play; it’s amazing the mental switch that goes off between junior and senior year.”
As a goaltender, Harding began to see some time between the pipes as a freshman.
“We recognized his raw ability pretty early on … the neat thing about Ben is how intense he is and how much he wants to improve and get better; he’s one of the best goalies in the state,” Kamp said.
Senior defender Joey Luffy is a four-year varsity player, and “probably the best pure skater on the team, a beautiful stride, he can really get up and down the ice,” said Kamp. Junior forward Rope Ketola returns to the starting lineup. Kamp said Ketola “has a knack for keeping the puck on his stick and driving straight through the other team,” in addition to being cerebral and tough.
The Bombers face Moeller in the annual Greater Catholic League showcase Dec. 19 at the Cincinnati Gardens, with Elder and La Salle set to follow the Bombers and Crusaders.
La Salle survived a 2-20-2 season a year ago. Operative word being survived. Most programs wilt under the negative weight of a sour season. The Lancers didn’t fold, if anything they’ve attacked the ice harder in an effort to right the ship.
Coach Ken Handley, now in his 14th season, said his team is “sort of position-less. Everybody who’s not a goalie is a forward.” But, what it really means is that Handley’s shifts are expected to be versatile, able to handle a multitude of situations.
With only two seniors, the Lancers will lean heavily on their seven returning starters from last year.
Both seniors – Quinten Miller and Alex Smith – are also co-captains. Miller earned an honorable mention last season from the Southwest Ohio High School Hockey League. Handley said Smith, who was top three on the team last year in scoring, is the inspirational leader.
Junior Conner Liette returns the starting rotation. Handley said Liette’s a “strong skater, good passer who can score when he needs to, but he’s more of an assist guy.”
Once the postseason football runs ends at La Salle, junior Drew Obert will transition from the gridiron’s green synthetic field turf, over to the historic ice of the Cincinnati Gardens. Handley said Obert’s a beast in front of the net, likely a trademark he’s acquired from playing offensive and defensive line, and he’s a bonus on the power play.
Junior Johnny David returns home, back between the pipes this year as the starter. David added some size and “really good technique.” Handley said David’s noticeably improved each year.
Sophomores Evan Ogilvy and Josh Roesel both started for the Lancers as freshman, said Handley, who added Ogilvy brings a “tenacity,” in addition to being a great team player. Roesel has the potential to be the Lancers’ best player, Handley said.
“He has size, strength; he can score, he can pass,” Handley said of Roesel, “he can play defense, by far a team leader. He’s just a really great kid. If you can have 15 of this guy, you’d never lose a hockey game.”
One of the Lancers’ young guns – freshman Nate Scharf – also has big potential and upside. Handley said Scharf, “so far he’s just really fast, probably the fastest skater we have on the team; haven’t really see him in game situations yet, (but) he exhibits confidence and he’s really fast.”
La Salle opens its campaign on ice Dec. 5 at Centerville. Handley said his squad has seemed to mold into a close unit.
“I like the way they feel like a family, more than they do a team,” said Handley.