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Titans hockey set to open season this weekend

“There’s such a hard work ethic and their drive to win is incredible”

by Than Acuff

After a successful fall club season and the preseason now well under way, the Crested Butte Titans hockey team is set to open the regular season this weekend.

It’s the fourth year for the program and after spending the past three seasons under two different coaches, four-year assistant and JV coach Billy Watson was hired to take over the program as the head coach this season.

“I’m really excited and I have good help on my hands with Ben Reaman helping out,” says Watson.

The Titans had mixed results last season under head coach Jake Johnstone but surged toward the end of the regular season with a string of wins, only to fall in the first round of the postseason.

“I think it went well but it could have gone better,” says Watson. “We had been through a couple of new head coaches and it was a big learning curve for the kids.”

Once Watson was hired as the head coach, he went immediately to work, offering kids any available time over the summer to get the ball rolling, with several open weight sessions. Some kids took advantage of the opportunity and then Watson, at the behest of the kids and their families, put together a vibrant club hockey fall season starting at the end of August.

“They love hockey so much and wanted to develop a little more,” says Watson. “We had a mix of varsity and JV on the team and our main goal was to develop all of the players.”

The fall season ended up exceeding Watson’s expectations, with 16 kids playing and the team rattling off several wins, developing a new power play and winning the Tier II championship.

“We had a pretty successful fall program and they won it as a team,” says Watson.

The high school team is now in the throes of preseason workouts, finding any ice time they can with numerous teams and adult town leagues sharing one sheet of ice in Gunnison. Nevertheless, Watson has the team practicing three times a week, with one session at 6 a.m. He has 27 skaters, including two fully committed goalies, with two others getting in practice times when not busy with their other teams.

“It’s pretty good numbers but I would like a few more kids,” says Watson. “I will have some kids playing both JV and varsity so it’s nice to have that extra depth.”

He was immediately struck by the players’ energy once they hit the ice, with 11 seniors leading the charge.

“To see how far they’ve come in the past four years is amazing,” says Watson. “There’s such a hard work ethic, the drive to win is incredible and the seniors’ energy carries through to the younger kids.”

As far as systems for the team and strategy, after working the past three years with two different coaches and attending coaching clinics, Watson has a plan in place.

“I try to take positives and negatives from every coach I’ve seen,” says Watson. “We’re developing more systems than they have in the past and I’m really trying to incorporate skills, competition and battling. We changed up our power play this year and had huge success with it in the fall league.”

Seniors Sam Stepanek, Slater Weil and Luke Collins have been tapped as captains, with each one bringing something different to the table. The Titans will open league play this weekend as they head to Eagle to face Glenwood Springs on Friday, November 30. Their league will include a mix of ski town high school teams as well as bigger Front Range high schools, and Watson believes they should have a successful season this winter.

“We have a really good team and the opportunity to be a great team,” says Watson. “It comes down to leadership and how bad they want it. We’ll see how it all plays out.”

The Titans will play their first home game on Saturday, December 15 when they host Woodland Park.

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