After reaching new heights that included its first trip to the WIAA state tournament and a single-season program record for wins (22) last season, the West Salem/Bangor High boys hockey team proved it could play with anyone.
Even after suffering a 7-0 loss to Wausau West in a state quarterfinal — a score that ballooned when West scored four goals in the third period — West Salem/Bangor’s confidence never dipped. In fact, players asked their coach to go out and schedule the best of the best this season.
“You want to give the kids the best exposure to the best teams as often as you can,” Panthers coach Eric Borre said. “But, honestly, the kids wanted it. The kids said, ‘Hey, coach, can you go out and get us some of the big names? Get us some of the big programs to see where we are at.’
“It’s not an opportunity to go out and prove ourselves to anybody. It’s an opportunity to see how we can play against some of the teams that have had success in Madison to kind of measure ourselves against.”
Borre and the coaching staff were able to do just that. The Panthers will travel to Green Bay at the end of December to play in a tournament hosted perennial powerhouse Green Bay Notre Dame. As it stands , seven of the eight teams in the tournament are ranked among the state’s top 10. It includes Wausau West, Eau Claire Memorial, Waukesha, Superior, Neenah, and Madison Edgewood.
“It’s not about going undefeated or winning every game,” Borre said. “It’s about playing the best teams, and to put our kids in our program and ourselves in that situation is definitely something we wanted to do as a coaching staff.”
The Panthers should be up to the challenge with 80 percent of their offensive output returning. University of Wisconsin hockey commit and senior Jack Gorniak, who had 71 points (33 goals, 38 assists), leads the way.
His two linemates — seniors Joey Oldendorf and Cayden Krause — combined for 80 points last year and also return.
Five of six players return on the defense, too.
“Really when you look at our roster we have 13, 14 seniors that played as freshmen. Guys that cracked the lineup pretty consistently as freshmen,” Borre said. “When it comes to Jack, he’s going to get all of the headlines in the press and from an individual standpoint he absolutely deserves that. He puts his teammates in a spot to be successful because of that. We definitely aren’t counting on Jack Gorniak to win us every game we play.
“We have plenty of guys that we are confident in that can make great plays on the ice with Jack, of course, being one of them. We have to play a great team game.”
The Panthers have also added a couple of weapons to the arsenal. Junior forward Alex Jackson has taken his game to another level so far this season. Through three games — during which West Salem/Bangor has outscored its opponents 26-3 — Jackson is tied for second on the team with six points (four goals, two assists).
“He’s one of many that put in a lot of work during the summer. Just the generalized strength and he just matured,” Borre said. “As a freshman, he was a JV guy, as a sophomore played exclusively varsity and you could just see his confidence grow throughout the season. He’s a kid that finds himself in the right spot. He’s got a quick realize and can put the puck in the net. He’s a guy that we are going to count on to take a little bit of the pressure off of Jack, off of Joey, off of Cayden.”
The Panthers have all the pieces to make another run to Madison, but they aren’t taking anything for granted.
“We aren’t a lock to go,” Borre said. “There’s plenty of teams in our sectional that have as a good of a chance as West Salem does. But I think that state experience has left us hungry for more.”