Charlie Marshall felt like this could be a different season for his Aquinas co-op boys hockey program.
He didn’t have a large senior class, but he had experienced players.
And just as important, Marshall saw the chance to build some depth and balance after realizing that he had 39 players to coach. That is key in building a winner, and interest was growing.
“My first two, three seasons, we had 22, 24 and either 26 or 27 (players),” said Marshall, who is in his fifth season of leading the team. “My first couple of years, we didn’t have enough for a JV schedule at all, and even last year, we only had six or seven JV games.
“We have a full JV schedule now, and it’s different scheduling a practice for two full teams, game schedules, travel plans. But it speaks volumes for the amount of support we have.”
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Participation numbers are rising quickly in Holmen, which joins Aquinas, Onalaska Luther, G-E-T, C-FC and Coulee Christian in the co-op. Instead of players opting out of the Avalanche and playing for another area program, they were sticking with the Avalanche, and those decisions are starting to pay off.
After winning 18 games over the past three years, the Avalanche have already won 11 this season. Their 11-7 record has been built with a seven-game winning streak that included a 5-4 overtime win over La Crescent-Hokah on Tuesday.
The team is putting together significant wins while being led by an eight-player senior class that has earned plenty of ice time in recent seasons.
Marshall pointed to a holiday tournament in the Wisconsin Dells area as a turning point for the Avalanche. The team played three straight morning games — two at Poppy Waterman Ice Arena in Lake Delton and a third at the Wisconsin Dells Ice Arena — and lost all three by a combined score of 12-2.
Reedsburg/Wisconsin Dells emphasized the struggle with a 7-0 win over the Avalanche on the final day.
“We got worked pretty hard in that third game,” said Marshall, who played his final two high school seasons for the Avalanche and has been associated with the team since he was 16 years old. “I think it was kind of a wakeup call and flipped a switch in their heads “
The team was 4-7 and faced some urgency if it wanted to fulfill its own expectations after three straight losing seasons.
A 2-1 win over Tomah/Sparta on Jan. 3 followed, and the Avalanche haven’t lost since that tournament.
But going back to numbers, the team has carved out a lot of that success as a group and not by relying on a scoring machine leading the way.
Fourteen players have scored at least one goal, and just one has more than 10. Owen Hoehn, a freshman from Holmen, has a team-high 13 goals and ranks second with 23 points when adding his 10 assists.
Calvin Gilbertson, a junior from Holmen, has a team-high 26 points with nine goals and 17 assists to lead an offense that has taken advantage of a defense that is allowing 2.7 goals per game.
Marshall has used three goaltenders, leaning a little more on a couple of seniors.
Keaton Breske has a 7-4 record with 280 saves while logging 582 minutes, and Ethan Oines going 3-2 with 76 saves over 238 minutes. Oines shut out Viroqua 7-0 on Dec. 20.
Sophomore Mason Kelm has played in seven games — Oines has played in 15 and Breske 14 — and has a 1-1 record and 53 saves against six goals allowed in 118 minutes.
The victory over the Lancers on Tuesday didn’t just extend the winning streak, it pumped up the confidence for a team playing its best hockey at a good time.
Gilbertson, Hoehn, Joseph Baranowski and Evan Johnson scored in regulation for the Avalanche before La Crescent-Hokah tied the score with two goals in the third period.
Freshman Jack Barth then scored the winner in overtime.
It was a good example of the depth and balance that has been built. Marshall may not know who is going to have a big game each night, but he can be confident that someone will.
And that is allowing the Avalanche to understand it can win like its coach believed when the season began.
“I told them that when I looked at our schedule, I didn’t think there was a team we couldn’t beat,” Marshall said. “That doesn’t mean I thought we would go 24-0, but I thought we could be competitive with and beat anyone we played.”
Onalaska/La Crosse, a team that has handled the Avalanche on a regular basis in recent years, was one of those opponents.
“That’s the team everyone calls a rival, but it hasn’t been much of a rivalry lately,” said Marshall, whose team lost a 4-2 game to the Hilltoppers early. “But after losing to them the first time, we came back and beat them for the first time in something like five years, so that was big for us, too.”
Todd Sommerfeldt can be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter @SommerfeldtLAX