Truly elite players aren’t in it for themselves. That isn’t the case for most.
“I think what makes those kids special is how good they make the kids around them,” West Salem/Bangor boys hockey coach Eric Borre said.
That’s why the Panthers will be paying close attention to Connor Duncan on Tuesday night.
A junior forward for the Aquinas co-op, Duncan has been a facilitator for the No. 4-seeded Avalanche all year — and throughout his entire prep career, for that matter. His 33 regular-season assists rank eighth in the state, while his season total of 34 — the last of which he recorded during Thursday’s 8-3, regional-final win over Central/Logan — is already tied for the program’s all-time single-season mark, set by Justin Kendall two years ago.
And with his senior season still on the horizon — not to mention Tuesday’s sectional semifinal at West Salem/Bangor — he’ll likely claim a few all-time records for the Avalanche, as well. Duncan’s 58 career assists are just 14 behind James Knutson’s four-year program record, while his 108 career points are just seven shy of the Knutson’s all-time mark of 115.
But you won’t hear any of that from Duncan.
“I like being able to do that for my team, but then I also know that I wouldn’t be able to do anything without the guys around me and the coaches around me,” Duncan said. “Everyone is working together, and it just makes it easier for me. I score goals, but it would have been nothing without my linemates, without the defense.”
“Connor has just been steady all year long. He’s got that knack,” Aquinas coach Tim Franzini said. “He’s very skilled, and his point production has really jumped here in the last couple weeks.”
The Avalanche won nine of their last 10 regular season games entering Thursday’s playoff victory, a streak to which Duncan played an integral role. He’s averaged 2.8 points per game since Jan. 14, and has scored 31 of his 52 points — a fraction shy of 60 percent — over the final half of the season.
And it’s paying dividends, as Aquinas is averaging 5.45 goals per game over its last 11 games.
“It’s not just me. Our whole team — our goaltending, our defensemen, our forwards — they all contribute, and I do think our top lines can play with anyone in the area. We really control our own destiny,” Duncan said. “When all the guys are playing together and everyone’s giving it their all, we can be dangerous.”
Several elite players have graced the Coulee Region this year.
Junior forward Jack Gorniak has been a revelation for the top-seeded Panthers, racking up 30 goals and 34 assists in securing the state’s sixth-best scoring output. Another local product, Onalaska senior Jacob Dirks, has been even better, scoring 49 goals — including a whopping eight hat tricks — and 74 points, while his linemate, senior Cam Oberweiser, has racked up a state-best 39 assists.
Duncan is of the same caliber, Franzini said.
“All of us in the area have some top-end guys,” Franzini said. “Dirks and Gorniak are so good and so explosive and have good motors, and that’s one area Connor’s really been improving on, his motor; and just improving his play overall defensively. But he’s always been very skilled with the puck. He can shoot the lights out with it. That’s just credit to him that that line has kind of come together and done really well.”
“(Duncan)’s a leader on that team, just like Jack is on ours,” Borre said. “When you prepare to play an opposing team with a player of his caliber, you make sure that you have a game plan for him.”