Program moves from club to high school league
by Than Acuff
Since the inception of midget (high school-age) hockey in the Gunnison Valley, the program has been a club sport. For years there were two teams, the Gunnison Blades and the Crested Butte Wolfpack, and a healthy valley-wide rivalry made for some exciting games each and every season. Two years ago, the two teams joined forces under the umbrella of the West Elk Hockey Association as the West Elk Wolverines.
When the two ends of the valley joined forces, they struggled to find adequate competition in the available club leagues and ended up rattling off numerous wins with some post-season success, including last year.
“Last season was, in many ways more of the same, but different paths,’” says head coach Joey Otsuka. “We played in the CPHL [Colorado Prep Hockey League] again against competition that was below our level of play. We won the league; however, we lost, again, in double overtime in the championship game. I know the squad was very disappointed, but also, very proud of the season they put together. We had a strong core of leaders last year that will be missed, but luckily I believe they did a good job of teaching the players below them to be leaders this year.”
This year the team has undergone another shift as they’ve moved from club hockey league play and into the Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA) and will now be the Crested Butte Titans. Otsuka, along with Julia Kidd and Bob Piccaro from the Community School, started the process of moving into the CHSAA league last year and the effort finally came to fruition. Otsuka felt that the talent level in the Gunnison Valley warranted a move from their usual club league and into a more competitive situation.
“The move to CHSAA is a necessity,” says Otsuka. “We have the skill and commitment to be playing at the highest level of competition for high school hockey. Therefore, we should be playing there. The level of competition in CHSAA is the highest ‘in-state’ competition for players who are in high school. The highest level of competition for high school students would be AAA U18 hockey. They compete on a national level, though.”
Otsuka will have Billy Watson joining him again as an assistant coach. In addition, the program has Todd Carroll returning on their staff with Molly Cannon coaching when available and Kidd and Piccaro helping to keep the ship running tight.
“It’s a genuine team effort,” says Otsuka.
The team will have its challenges though, since they lost nearly 13 players from the squad last year. Remarkably though, they have 31 players this year and Otsuka believes the players who have moved on from the program left a lasting impression on this year’s squad.
“I believe that those players we lost set a very high bar for our current players,” says Otsuka. “I also believe that the players we lost passed on a large amount of institutional and emotional knowledge to this year’s seniors to help foster success in the longer and more competitive 2016- 2017 Crested Butte Titans hockey season.”
The team has struggled to get adequate ice time as they prepare for the upcoming season. With just one rink in Gunnison shared between a multitude of programs from the youngest kids to a variety of adult leagues, the Titans coaching staff has been somewhat limited during pre-season workouts.
“Preseason has been rough,” admits Otsuka. “We have only been able to secure six actual practices before our first game, since ice is tough to come by and the Thanksgiving break has been tough on players, and myself, since we traveled for the holiday. Our focus has just been the first game, systems, and getting as much skating in as possible.”
As for expectations for the season, they are somewhat unknown. The team is headed into new territory with the new, more competitive, league. Nevertheless, Otsuka does believe the team should be competitive among the CHSAA ranks.
“Right now, I don’t have any expectations, other than our players’ commitment to what we have been practicing,” says Otsuka. “Having seen a couple other high school teams practice and play this year, I believe we are one of the stronger mountain squads. However, I cannot gauge where we are in comparison to the Front Range teams.”
The Titans open the 2016-2017 season on the road as they face Mountain Vista on Saturday, December 3. Their first home game will be in Gunnison on Thursday, December 8 at 3 p.m.