“I think the players came away with a lot of confidence”
While things were clicking for the West Elk Wolverines the past couple of weeks, they knew their road trip to the Front Range to face Cherry Creek this past weekend would be tough.
While Cherry Creek sits in the middle of the league standings, they have a plethora of talent to pull from and that played out as the Wolverines cruised to a win in the first game, only to tie their second game against a refurbished Cherry Creek team.
The two teams met on Saturday, February 21 for the first game and the Wolverines went to work immediately, building a 5-0 lead before Cherry Creek could respond.
“The first couple of goals were off-set plays that we’ve been working on in practice,” says coach Joe Otsuka. “They just executed and it worked.”
But with the Wolverines firing on all pistons, there was little Cherry Creek could do to stem the tide as the Wolverines skated away with a 10-2 win. Colby Archuleta led the Wolverines with three goals in the game.
“We pressed on the gas and drove through the rink,” says Otsuka. “The kids were highly motivated and we had great puck possession and great defense. Offensively, everyone had a hand in the result.”
The result had Cherry Creek retool their team for the second game of the weekend on Sunday. With an influx of players to the Cherry Creek roster, it was evident that the Wolverines were facing an entirely different beast on Sunday. Nevertheless, the Wolverines stepped up to the challenge to get an idea of where they stand in the bigger picture of high school hockey.
“It was an opportunity to show everyone in Colorado that we can play a top-tier team and do well,” says Otsuka. “The players knew they had a huge hill to climb and they didn’t hesitate.”
While Otsuka admits there may have been a slight case of nerves at the outset, the Wolverines settled into their roles as the game progressed. The two teams traded off strikes through the first two periods but Cherry Creek built a 3-2 lead and looked to put the game away. Wolverines goalie Logan Brennise came up with a miraculous save in the heat of the moment and Otsuka mixed up his lines in the third, searching for the game-tying strike.
“I’m blessed to have a lot of players who understand the big picture and I was able to shift the lines in a certain manner,” explains Otsuka.
That shift included moving Jordi Nichols to the first line to join Ian O’Banion and Sam Reaman in an effort to establish puck possession, while Brady Wilson, Issac Evans and Colby Archuleta teamed up on the second line to provide a physical presence and unmatched hustle.
The move paid off in the final minute of the game when the Wolverines set up in the Cherry Creek zone and pushed the puck into the corner. With Cherry Creek collapsing to pack the area in front of their net, the Wolverines looked off the first option in the high slot and dropped the puck to Ashton Mabry at the point. Mabry lined up and fired a slap shot on net and O’Banion tipped the puck past the Cherry Creek goalie for the 3-3 tie.
“I think the kids came away with a lot of confidence,” says Otsuka. “It was a very team-oriented hockey game.”
Otsuka plans to ramp things up for the Wolverines as they head into the final weekend of the regular season and the post-season.
“The next two weeks are going to be intense for the club,” says Otsuka. “We’ll be on the ice every single day. What they need now is confidence and repetition.”
The Wolverines will host Centaurus on Sunday, March 1 in Gunnison, with games at 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.