Team: Waconia boys’ hockey
Coach: Dan Benham
Assistant coaches: Jake Hinderman, Jason Miller, Shane Clausen, and Mark Grundhofer
Conference: Wright County
Captains: Ben Kullman and Ryan Mattson
2011-12 finish: The 2011-12 season marked the first winning season since the 2008 co-op split with Holy Family.
With a 15-10-1 record, the Wildcats finished fifth (of seven) in the conference. Waconia was seeded No. 7 in section play, but was upset by No. 10 Minnehaha Academy in the first round.
During the season, the team also received the Star of the North Award by Minnesota State Representative John Kline for the team’s contributions to the community.
Key losses: Missing from the starting lineup this season is 2012 All-Conference player Charlie Klos. David Macdonald and Justin Young will also be missing from the sidelines.
“They were both good leaders and good players,” captain Ryan Mattson said.
Key returnees: For a team that has been described as young and inexperienced the last few years, this season’s Wildcats are led by a team of 14 seniors, including 2011-12’s three leading scorers Tanner Riebel, Mattson, and Justin Reinke. Mattson was All-Conference last season, while Riebel, Reinke, and goalie Nathan Kovach were Honorable Mention. Kovach returns to the goal for his fourth varsity season and will bring key experience and goalkeeping to the ice, according to captains Mattson and Ben Kullman.
Also returning are juniors Kevin Kittleson and Blaine Wilsey, along with a fair number of juniors from last season. With more senior leaders and a dedicated team, according to Kullman, the Wildcats are already surpassing where they were at this point last year.
Key newcomers: For the first time in a long time, the Wildcats have more than two goalies on the roster. This season, they have about five. And with 40-plus athletes on the team, the Wildcats can have fresher legs throughout games and be more competitive.
“We’re deeper as a team which is huge,” Mattson said.
This season, the Wildcats plan to step up the physicality of their game and run a smoother offense, among other aspects, according to Mattson and Kullman.
“I think we’ll do a better job of breaking out of the zone,” Kullman said.
Teams to beat: A friendly rivalry has built between former co-op teams Waconia and Holy Family. The Fire boasted a strong, young core last season and are expected to do more of the same this season. The teams from Orono and Mound-Westonka are also returning many players, and could also be potential teams to beat.
Goals: Simply staying in the game is a goal of the Wildcats this season. Too many times last season, the ‘Cats found themselves losing by three or more goals.
“Most of all we just want to be competitive,” Mattson said.
Last year’s first round section loss “definitely caught us off guard,” said Kullman. He added that the Wildcats want to win that first section game this season.
“This is the year we need to break into sections,” Mattson added.
First games: The Wildcats started the season over Thanksgiving weekend with a tournament at Blake. On Nov. 23, the Wildcats lost 3-2 to Delano. Mattson scored both goals for Waconia. Kittleson had one assist.
On Nov. 24, Waconia lost 3-0 to Milwaukee University School (Wisc.). Wildcat head coach Dan Benham said it was tough to lose the opening games of the season, but Waconia took on some good competition.
“It was good to [see] some underclassmen step up and log quality minutes for us,” he said.