By Will LeBlond
ITHACA – By nature, high school sports teams experience varying levels of turnover, some seasons seeing a wealth of veteran experience, while others are periods of transition. For the Ithaca High School boys hockey team, youth is the name of the game for its 2016-17 edition.
Fifth-year head coach Paul Zarach has been getting a relatively young bunch ready to go for the new season with 18 of the 25 players on his roster sophomores or younger. The youthful makeup of the squad was apparent when the Little Red competed in exhibition games last weekend, with 13 of their 18 skaters listed as first-year varsity players. When that level of inexperience makes up the primary core of players, Zarach thinks the best option to get them acclimated to the varsity level is to just let them play. That is why he thinks their exhibition slate of games played up in the North Country will pay dividends.
“I think with the first couple weeks it was tough because guys had not played at that level and they didn’t know the speed of the game or the physicality,” said Zarach. “It was a great opportunity up north, there were guys up there playing with full beards that were six-foot-three.”
His crop of players will have to find ways to generate offense as well as get used to the speed of the game. With the departure of last season’s graduating class, which included top scorer Buzz Shirley, more than half of last season’s goal output is no longer on the team. No matter which players stay or go, Zarach has developed a system of togetherness that he hopes will lead his squad in the coming campaign.
“Our theme for the season is strength in unity; I gave everyone a t-shirt with that on the back,” he said. “That’s our motto for the season, we need to have strength in unity together every time we’re on the ice in order to be successful.”
That team unit will look to improve on a 4-14-2 record from last season, but there are reasons for optimism that this season – and years into the future – will see improvement. This season will mark the first year of the Little Red’s junior varsity program, which will help get more players involved with the program and create more of a natural pipeline to the varsity team. The new team should help with replacing lost players at the varsity level, as the goal of this year’s program is to compete and improve from last year’s results.
“Our expectations are that we’re going to compete each game,” said Zarach. “Expectations for right now, if we were going to set them, would be to have a .500 record.
“That’s a realistic expectation,” he added. “As the marathon season goes on and we’re going day-to-day, we can go ahead and maybe expand those goals.”
The goal of making the regional playoffs will already be achieved before the puck even drops on the season, as the Little Red automatically qualify for the regional playoffs as the only Section IV team represented at the Division I level. For the team, it will be a matter of being locked, loaded and ready to go for when the playoff season comes around.
Leading the Little Red this season will be senior captain defenseman James Cronin, who should provide stability at the back end and is the lone returner for the defensive corps. Up front, there are more returners, but sophomore Michael Sornberger and senior Woocheol Hyun should put some spark into the offensive side of the ice. In the cage this season, sophomore Jackson Oates is the lone returning goalie with playing time under his belt from last season with the graduation of last year’s starter Keane Niday. Oates will be joined by classmate Billy Block and eighth-grader William Gephart to form the goaltending trio.
The 2016-17 regular season schedule kicked off the weekend of November 25, with the Little Red taking part in the Williamsville North Tournament. They lost 9-1 to Williamsville North, and then picked up their first win of the season with a 5-2 victory over Williamsville South. They’ll next be taking on CBA on the road on Tuesday, December 6; the Little Red’s first home games will take place Friday, December 16, and Saturday, December 17, with contests versus Clinton and Whitesboro, respectively, at Lynah Rink.