Start league play with two wins
It was a momentous occasion. After years of existing as a contentious valley rivalry, the Gunnison Blades and Crested Butte Wolfpack midget (high school–age) hockey teams joined forces as the West Elk Wolverines in perpetuity.
They’ve been working hard the past several weeks under new head coach Joe Otsuka and last weekend was the new program’s first test as they opened league play on the Front Range with two games against Ranch Hockey Club.
Heading into the weekend, Otsuka admits there were some questions. He knew nothing about the team they were playing and had yet to see how his players react in game situations. One thing he did know: His players had put in the work and knew that the effort you put in during practice plays out in a game. His players adopted that attitude for the entire preseason.
“The players did a very good job of taking advantage of every rep they had and a lot of value has been put on the practices,” says Otsuka.
It turns out, the Wolverines translated their workout mentality to their game mentality as they outscored Ranch Hockey Club 8-1 to rattle off two wins.
The Wolverines opened the scoring 10 minutes into the first period as Gus Hensley set up Patrick Seifert on a powerplay. Ian Obanion and Brady Wilson connected in the third minute of the second period to put the Wolverines up 2-0 before Ranch Hockey Club found the back of the Wolverines’ net on a powerplay.
The Wolverines continued to press in the second period, dominating play from end-to-end to set up several more chances, while the Wolverine defense held off the Ranch Hockey Club attack.
The Wolverines finally broke through one more time during a penalty-ravaged second period, as Obanion netted his second goal of the game off assists from Isaac Evans and Sam Reaman to put the Wolverines up 3-1 heading into the third period.
The Wolverines continued to set the tone in the third but shots missed their marks. Fortunately, the Wolverines’ effort on defense did the rest to seal the 3-1 win.
While netminder Logan Brennise had a relatively quiet game in net, he responded when the Ranch Hockey Club broke through the Wolverines defense, finishing the game with 17 saves.
“Once he was tested, he answered the call,” says Otsuka.
Overall, Otsuka couldn’t have been more pleased with the first game of the season, although, as always, there were some concerns.
“It went about as well as you could expect,” says Otsuka. “We executed our five-on-five better than I’ve seen any team at this point in the season, which is encouraging. I did see hints of old habits coming through but we addressed them immediately. For a first game, I think it was the best way you could start a season.”
Otsuka shared his thoughts with the team after the game and reminded them of the goal at hand as they prepared for their second game of the weekend against Ranch Hockey Club on Sunday, December 14.
As far as Otsuka could tell, the players took his words to heart as they came into the game on Sunday, December 14 and lit up Ranch Hockey Club for five goals to cruise to the shutout win.
“They were focused for the game and it showed,” says Otsuka. “We were hitting on all cylinders. It was just a great victory. Everyone had their role and everyone executed correctly.”
Obanion led the team with another two-goal effort and Ashton Mabry, Isaac Evans and Brady Wilson scored one apiece.
One surprise for Otsuka came from his team’s physical play, crediting the players’ previous coaches from the past several years setting a solid precedent for clean physical hockey.
“What they bring in terms of physical quality is something to see,” says Otsuka. “They were more physical, but in a clean way.”
The team will take a break from games over the holidays with a non-league tournament lined up for the end of December before they return to league play the first week of January.