No one on the ice pushed the panic button, no one got a kick in the breezers and no one in the front office was contemplating playing let’s make a deal.
With that said, the Coulee Region Chill are a different team in November than they were the month before.
An 0-5 start isn’t entirely forgotten, but when the Chill (4-7-1-1) take the ice tonight against the Minnesota Magicians (9-5-1-1), they will do so with a three-game winning streak. In fact, Coulee Region has won four of its last six games.
So what happened? What switch was turned on and by whom?
“We are playing with a little more urgency,” said second-year Chill coach Ryan Egan, whose team has outscored its last three opponents 12-7.
“Early on, we weren’t playing with a shooter’s mentality and were not getting enough pucks to the net. We have been working on that and talking about it. I think that has helped.”
So has the play of defenseman Brandon Koch, a 6-foot, 171-pounder who is in his first year of junior hockey after playing at prep power Shattuck-Saint Mary’s in Faribault, Minn. Koch, as proven by his team-best 13 assists, gets involved in both ends of the ice and gets others involved, too.
“If you look at his stats, he has a goal and 13 assists, so he has been that puck mover that we have needed,” Egan said. “His movement of the puck has found ways to create offense for us, and that has helped for sure.”
Koch recently committed to NCAA Division I Air Force Academy — the plan is to join the team for the 2019-2020 season — but until then, there are two years of junior hockey to play.
And playing with the Chill, he says, has tested him both mentally and physically.
“It wasn’t a great start, but I mean it (turnaround) all started with the older kids, the vets, as they kept an even keel in the locker room,” Koch said. “We weren’t happy about it (slow start), but we couldn’t get down on ourselves, so we kept pushing and finally we started playing well and putting things together.”
The Chill’s about-face was not a one-period or one-game thing, yet a gradual improvement in all-around play. Offensively, defensively and goaltending, which Swedish born Emil Zetterquist has taken charge.
“Our goaltending has been very good, so we haven’t given up as much as maybe we were early on,” said Egan, whose team ranks third defensively in the NAHL’s Midwest Division with 47 goals allowed. “Overall, we found some urgency in our game and we found a few guys that are starting to find their way at this level.”
HOT GOALIE: Zetterquist takes a 4-2-1-1 record into tonight’s game against the Magicians. He is coming off back-to-back wins over first-place Brookings, and played especially well in the third period of the Chills’ 5-4 shootout victory over the Blizzard.
“He is an elite goaltender at this level, for sure,” Egan said of Zetterquist, who has a 2.32 goals-against average and has a .939 save percentage.
“You would like to think he will get even better, but we (coaches) feel very confident in him, the guys feel very confident in him, he feels confident. We are excited about what he can do for us moving forward.”
CHECKING THEIR EGOS: While the Chill have played well over the last two weeks, Egan and assistants Jeff Hannan and Ryan Ess, are making sure the team doesn’t get too full of themselves.
“Yes, we can see the confidence level in practice and from a coaching standpoint, you wonder, ‘Are we a little too confident?’ That is where we have to make sure we keep the guys in check and humble, as we still have a long ways to go.”
SZMUL HONORED: By sweeping Central Division-leading Brookings over the weekend, the Chill received some league-wide notice as rookie forward Connor Szmul as named the Midwest Star of the Week.
Szmul, a 5-foot-8, 150-pounder who is a native of Castle Rock, Colo., scored four points (3 goals, 1 assists) in the two-game sweep. Szmul had an assist in Friday night’s 5-4 shootout win, then cranked it up on Saturday with his first NAHL hat trick.
Szmul has six points on the season.
BANGOR — Caleb Miedema is a menace to any offense, but playing in the defensive backfield for the Bangor High School football team makes him more dangerous as each down passes.
The Cardinals (12-0) have done an incredible job of making opponents contend with a large deficit early in games this season.
Bangor’s ability to stifle the run has forced teams to pass, and that plays right into the hands of Miedema, who has done nothing but add to those deficits with his playmaking ability.
Miedema, a 6-foot-4 senior, has deterred most quarterbacks from throwing to his side of the field, but he has also intercepted five passes against those who have insisted.
“What I like about Caleb as a defender is that he will always high-point the ball,” Bangor coach Rick Muellenberg said. “He doesn’t sit back, he doesn’t jump early. He knows how to go for the ball.”
If Miedema gets the chance to make a play Friday night against Abbotsford, it will be a sign that things are going well for Bangor.
The Cardinals and Falcons (10-2) will probably play a pretty fast WIAA Division 7 semifinal at Dorais Field in Chippewa Falls, Wis. Both teams like to run the ball and are very good at it.
But the Cardinals, who allow averages of 131 total yards and 3.5 points per game, will do what they can to force the Falcons into passing situations and give Miedema — or another member of a defense with 22 interceptions — the chance to create a turnover.
“Turnovers have been a big thing for us this year,” Bangor defensive coordinator Kevin Kravik said. “I’m not sure what our margin is, but it’s up there and a lot of them have come on interceptions.
“That, in turn, helps our offense.”
Miedema, also a standout basketball player for the Cardinals, has 10 career interceptions, and he has returned two of them for touchdowns. He also turned a fumble into a touchdown as a junior.
“If he gets beat, which hardly ever happens, it doesn’t matter,” senior linebacker and running back Luke Reader said of Miedema. “He has the speed to make up the distance and make the play.”
Those are the kinds of plays made by teams who have outscored opponents by an average of 43-7 in the last four seasons (51 games). Bangor has shut out 24 of those 51 opponents.
“We have all learned a lot from watching past teams,” Miedema said. “When we won state, we had a group of really good linebackers, and we watched them pretty closely.”
Miedema, also a tight end with 24 catches for 674 yards and 14 touchdowns the last two seasons, adds a significant touch of athleticism to the backfield. He is taller than most receivers he encounters and is physical enough to impose his will in the middle of the field if one of the team’s many talented linebackers doesn’t beat him to the play.
Miedema has been in on 30 tackles — four behind the line of scrimmage — and blocked two kicks while punting for a 34.2-yard average and successfully kicking three of four attempts at extra points.
“He does a little bit of everything with the punting and kicking added in there,” Muellenberg said of Miedema. “He’s a tremendous athlete, and that’s why he can do all of those things for us.”
The Falcons will present a challenge to the Bangor defense. Abbotsford has outscored its playoff opponents 115-20 and averages 410 yards and 36.7 points per game.
The Cardinals held Edgar, last year’s state champion who averaged 36 points per game, to one touchdown last week. The Wildcats had 240 total yards, but were held to about 40 in the second half.
Bangor reversed its fortunes in that game — Edgar eliminated the Cardinals in last year’s semifinals — by sustaining drives and making defensive plays. Edgar’s first three possessions of the second half resulted in 11 yards.
Quarterback Ean Rau (1,520 rushing yards, 17 TDs) and running backs Adam Seefluth (1,039 yards, 11 TDs) and Joe Aguilera (910 yards, 13 TDs) will try to be more effective for Abbotsford.
“They have good players, and (Rau) is fast, quick and everything you’d want in a good quarterback and linebacker,” Bangor junior linebacker Brendan Burke (78 tackles, 6 for loss) said. “They are a good team, have beat some good teams and made it to this same round last year.
“I think they are hungry, and I think we’re confident and will be ready for the game.”
MADISON — Joe Ferguson is making a name for himself at No. 6 Wisconsin.
It has nothing to do with being athletic director Barry Alvarez’s grandson.
The senior safety has turned into a key contributor on the Badgers’ tough defense, the latest in a recent line of reserves who have been productive when stepping up because of injuries or when coach Paul Chryst dips into roster depth.
Somehow, some way, Ferguson always seems to be around the ball of late.
Ferguson had two interceptions, a fumble recovery and two pass deflections in the 45-17 win last week over Indiana. He had an interception two weeks ago in the victory over Illinois.
“You see the athletic ability. He’s got a nose for the ball,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said Wednesday.
Ferguson recovered a fumble three weeks ago against Maryland. In the season opener against Utah State, Ferguson returned an interception 99 yards for a touchdown.
Ferguson has seen his playing time increase of late because of a right leg injury to starter D’Cota Dixon, the leader in the secondary for Wisconsin (9-0, 6-0 Big Ten, No. 8 CFP).
As it turns out, there hasn’t been much of a drop-off.
“A lot of it is your talent. On the hand, it’s your mindset going into the game. You’ve got to be thinking ball, you’ve got to be thinking interception, you’ve got to be thinking ‘strip the ball,’” Ferguson said.
He sounds a lot like Leonhard, who also played at Wisconsin. Leonhard was a former walk-on who emerged to become a ball-hawking safety in college and the NFL.
“I’ve been saying it for a while — you just listen to what coach Leonhard says, good things happen,” Ferguson said.
Depth has helped Wisconsin withstand key injuries. Besides Dixon, the Badgers lost perhaps their most dynamic defender, inside linebacker Jack Cichy, to a season-ending knee injury in preseason camp.
That position also happens to be one of the deepest on the team, so Chris Orr stepped in to replace Cichy alongside T.J. Edwards. Ryan Connelly is the third member of the inside linebacker rotation.
Now Connelly is stepping into replace Orr this weekend against No. 25 Iowa, with Orr out with left leg injury. A year ago, Connelly stepped into replace Cichy when Cichy was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Wisconsin’s defense continued to play well then, too.
Other backups have also played well in limited opportunities. Outside linebacker Tyler Johnson has two forced fumbles and a sack over the last two weeks. On offense, Chryst has turned to freshman running back Garrett Groshek in key, second-half situations.
In most instances, reserves get spurts of playing time early in the season, inserted into different situations. When an injury hits, or if starters need a breather for a drive or two in a key game later in the season, a reserve steps up. If they make big plays during those few series, they earn more playing time.
It’s what happened to outside linebacker Garret Dooley, who filled in capably last season when then-starters T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel were hurt. Dooley is now one of the rocks on this year’s defense with a team-high 6½ sacks.
“Whether in practice or whatever, (coaches) do a good job of rotating guys,” Dooley said. “When I had that start due to injury, I’ve kind of been in that spot (to play in key games.) It wasn’t as nerve-wracking.”
Ferguson has been bothered by injuries over his career. But this season is different. Coaches say they noticed a difference in physicality in kickoff coverage earlier in the year.
It has carried over to defense as he’s picked up more opportunities to play.
“He’s a guy who as a senior is playing his best football,” Chryst said, “and has fun playing and that can be contagious.”
GREEN BAY — Martellus Bennett’s time with the Green Bay Packers was brief – and extremely disappointing. It ended Wednesday in bizarre fashion, as the Packers cut the veteran tight end and set the stage for recouping some of the money they clearly feel they wasted on him.
Meanwhile, a number of his now ex-teammates are wondering what went awry — and whether Bennett quit on them as soon as they lost two-time NFL MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers to an Oct. 15 broken right collarbone.
Coincidence or not, that loss to the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium — Bennett, ironically, was Rodgers’ intended receiver on the fateful play and dropped the pass — was the last game Bennett would play for the Packers.
According to the official NFL transaction wire, the 30-year-old Bennett was waived with a “failed to disclose a medical condition” designation, and an NFL source said the Packers used that because they believe Bennett had a preexisting shoulder condition when they signed him to a three-year, $21 million free-agent deal in March.
Had Bennett decided to retire after the season — as he said he might in a seemingly out-of-nowhere social media post during the bye week — the club likely would have gone after the $4.2 million unamortized portion of the $6.3 million guaranteed signing bonus Bennett received. Now, the Packers can try to get a refund on all of Bennett’s 2017 pay, which is roughly $8 million.
Bennett had already been ruled out by coach Mike McCarthy on Wednesday morning from playing in Sunday’s game at Chicago. Bennett started the team’s first seven games and caught 24 passes for 233 yards, but he was inactive because of the shoulder injury for Monday night’s loss to Detroit. He was not on the Packers’ sideline during that game.
On Oct. 28, Bennett posted to his Instagram account that he was “pretty sure” that the Packers’ post-bye week games would be his last in the NFL and that he would retire after the season. Everything began to unravel after that.
Bennett returned with the rest of the team on Oct. 31 and took part in practice that day. Then, one week ago, Bennett mysteriously missed practice with a shoulder injury. He did not practice on Friday or Sunday, either, then didn’t play against the Lions. According to one source, Bennett went to his suburban Chicago home late last week. McCarthy said Bennett was in Green Bay on Tuesday meeting with the medical staff.
Asked directly after Monday night’s game whether Bennett’s shoulder injury happened during that Oct. 31 post-bye practice or before that, McCarthy cryptically answered, “Just everything as far as the medical information being gathered was post-practice Tuesday.”
That answer would indicate Bennett never mentioned the shoulder injury until after that practice. That day, Bennett left the locker room telling reporters he wouldn’t be talking with them because there was “nothing to talk about. Asked why he was contemplating retirement, Bennet replied, “Life.”
The Packers were Bennett’s fifth team in a 10-year career, as he played four seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, one season with the New York Giants, three seasons with the Bears and one season with the New England Patriots, winning the Super Bowl last year.
He seemed to find a comfort zone in Green Bay initially, hitting it off with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, promoting his off-the-field endeavors (children’s books, smart-phone apps and artwork with the Imagination Agency), and expressing his views on politics and social issues.
But his sudden disappearance after Rodgers’ injury led multiple players to wonder whether Bennett quit on them in the wake of the quarterback’s injury.
“It’s hard not to think anything other than that,” said one player contacted after the news broke. Said another: “It’s just weird.”
And now, it’s over.
Bennett is subject to waivers, so any team can put a claim in on him before 3 p.m. today. If he goes unclaimed after that, he is free to sign with any team and continue playing. Without Bennett, who started all seven games he played in, the Packers will go with Lance Kendricks and Richard Rodgers at tight end.
“The other guys have proven they can do it as well,” tight ends coach Brian Angelichio said last week when asked about not having Bennett. “So if Marty is there, great. If Marty’s not, the other guys are ready to go.”