‘Focus on the future’: Tigers hockey in a rebuilding season
When the Summit High hockey team enters a rebuilding season, the players and coaches hardly take that as code for “don’t expect to win.” No, it’s more of a challenge, the kind of challenge most upperclassmen don’t want to face: Rebuild now in hopes of becoming the best possible team one, two, maybe even three years down the road — long after they’re gone.
Make no mistake — this winter is one of those seasons for Tigers hockey. The team is currently 2-10-1 overall (2-6-1 conference) with six regular-season games remaining, and the tail end of the schedule won’t be easy. Summit plays twice on away ice this weekend: first against Liberty today (Liberty won 7-3 on Jan. 13) and next against Air Academy the next day (one of Summit’s two victories, a 5-3 win on Jan. 14). Under head coach Billy Barto, this year’s team is young and largely untested, but his crew of nearly 20 underclassmen and just six or seven healthy upperclassmen has come a long, long way from the painful 0-4 home opener against Castle View on Dec. 14.
“Of course I want to win a few more games, but if we are able to push the younger kids and give them more learning opportunities — more time on the ice — it will help this team,” said defenseman Brian Curnette, one of just four seniors on this year’s team. “It’s difficult being a senior during a learning year, but it’s needed to start the program again. If we want the next few years to be good — if we have good seniors teaching the freshmen and sophomores to play — it will help the team out in the long run.”
Leaders, top to bottom
Curnette’s fellow seniors agree, and that means coach Barto has already fought half the battle. Parker Rothey, a senior winger who says he’s more of a set-up guy than a goal scorer, has bought into his role as veteran leader on a team with slim chances of making the postseason. He remembers what it was like to be a young, untested freshman on another untested team, when the Tigers goalkeeper was the lone senior on the squad.
“My role this year has been helping the freshmen get ready for what’s coming, more than in the past years,” Rothey said. “I felt that way when I was a freshman. Even though we didn’t have as many freshmen, we had a lot of juniors and sophomores with just one senior that year.”
Rothey has a little more help this season, but not much. On the ice, he and his fellow seniors are trying to recapture the magic from last year, when they were juniors playing with a class of 10 seniors. It’s when Rothey and Curnette learned the most, they said, from practice to the locker room to rivalry games against Battle Mountain. The hockey team was one big family, Curnette said, and that team managed to claim a 5-13-1 record, including a 1-1 record against Battle Mountain and close losses to Aspen and Valor Christian.
“Being able to play with those kids was a lot of fun,” said Curnette, who’s learned to use his 6-foot, 2-inch frame as an asset on the ice. “I think we were also a little better in the standings, and that can be more fun when you’re winning games. I just developed a lot last year.”
Summit’s 2015-16 record still wasn’t enough to earn a postseason bid, but this season could be different. The league updated its playoff requirements this season to allow for 24 teams, and if all goes well with at least two or three wins in the final six-game stretch, the Tigers could earn a bid. It’s the end goal for seniors and freshman alike.
“I want to go to the playoffs in my senior year, get that family feeling back,” Rothey said.
If the postseason is a real, tangible goal, the Tigers have some work to do on offense and defense. The team has been held scoreless five times this season, including a string of four in a row since a 0-8 home loss to Battle Mountain on Jan. 25.
Junior center Sean Gurlea knows this has been an issue for his team and is busy taking care of transitions — that area between offensive speed and defensive power where a winning team controls the puck. His role isn’t as bombastic as a leading scorer or stonewall goalie, but it’s just as important.
“Years like this you focus on the future, on your long-term goals, and we have a lot of good talent,” Gurlea said. “We’re focusing on the little things to improve our game and get as many wins as we can.”
For freshmen — the guys who are brand-new to high school play — lesson number one is speed. Rothey said he was caught off-guard by the pace of play his first season, and he’s now helping his youngest teammates get up to, um, speed.
“In high school, the speed (of the game) puts you in your place, shows you that it’s hard to score and hard to even get an assist sometimes because of how fast it is,” Rothey said. “I love that fast pace.”
Good for Barto, his team is filled with fast learners. Freshman Max Bonenberger already has several goals, including a hat trick against Air Academy, and fellow freshman Luke Gosnell is just as good on the attack. The team needs wins to end the season on a high note — not to mention make the most of a rebuilding season — and everyone is convinced that can happen.
“We haven’t made it to the playoffs in six years, and I think that it’s doable this year for sure,” Rothey said. “If we play the right way — the way we know — we will get there.”
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