Rivals are now teammates as the first season of the Tomah/Sparta boys high school hockey co-op begins.
Longtime Tomah coach Todd Kirschbaum welcomes the influx of Sparta players into the program, a union that helps both schools. For Tomah, it means restoring a junior varsity schedule with an expanded roster of 28 skaters.
“It very helpful to get 24 or higher because we can run two teams,” Kirschbaum said. “Last year there were kids who hardly got to play at all.”
For Sparta, it means the continued chance to play hockey. Only eight skaters remained at Sparta, which left the school unable to continue a program on its own.
Kirschbaum hopes the additional bodies will fortify a team that went just 5-18-2 last year but played some of its best hockey in February. As in past seasons, Tomah will lean heavily on its goaltending and defense. The defensive wall starts with senior Paul Vender, a two-year starter at goaltender.
“Paul will be the bulk of the varsity playing time,” Kirschbaum said. “He’s very solid. If he stays healthy, he’ll be one of the top goalies in the state.”
Assistant coach Duncan Peterson added, “Paul is the kind of goalie who can steal a game for you.”
Sophomore Gavin Hammer is the junior varsity goaltender, and Kirschbaum anticipates Hammer will log some varsity minutes.
Kirschbaum is bullish on a defense he believes will be better than last season. He’ll rotate four on the varsity − seniors Jagger Hammer and Alex Sprackling and sophomores Evan Long and Jack Christen. Jagger Hammer is a returning Mississippi Valley Conference first-team all-conference pick and generated 16 points (five goals and 11 assists) last season.
“Their skill level is higher than what we have had in a long time,” Kirschbaum said. “They see the ice really well. They’re our best players.”
If Kirschbaum decided to rotate a fifth defenseman, it will be either senior Derrick Page, sophomore Alden Sprackling or freshman Jordan Dawley.
The biggest challenge facing the Timberwolves is igniting an offense that scored just 2 ½ goals per game last season. The forwards are seniors Dawson Cruz, Brady Fisher, Karter Hoag, Dylen Pierce, Cahil Arity and Logan Rego; juniors Eric Avoles, Matthew Holtz, Noah Zimmerman and Eric Wilcox-Borg; sophomores Brody Ehlinger, Danny Amberg, Boone Mathison, Mitchell Erickson and Charles Lisi; and freshmen Adam Thompson, Garrett Pedersen, Charlie Joyce and Daniel Lofgren.
Mathison (13 goals, three assists) and Pierce (five goals, seven assists) bring the most scoring back from last season. They’re likely to skate among the first three lines with Cruz, Amberg, Arity and Holtz.
“They’re all the same as last year − they’ve got an extra year of maturity,” Kirschbaum said. “We just have have to find some of synergy and creativity in the offensive zone.”
The team will be based in Tomah with practices and home games at Tomah Ice Center except for three home dates in January that will be played in Sparta.
Kirschbaum said the Tomah and Sparta players are unifying quickly.
“It’s going really well,” Kirschbaum said. “The kids get along well with each other. We’re pretty happy with how they’re meshing.”
MVC BOYS HOCKEY
Final 2017-18 standings
Onalaska 7-1-0 20-7-0
Aquinas/Holmen 7-1-0 19-7-0
Central/Logan 3-4-1 11-9-1
Sparta 2-6-0 6-11-1
Tomah 0-7-1 5-18-2