The perennially deep seven-team Monocacy Valley division of the Maryland Student Hockey League is as unpredictable as eighth-year Urbana High School ice hockey head coach Toby Heusser can remember, he said, with each team capable of beating the next. And if the 2011 state finalist Hawks, who went 11-1 last winter, are going to keep with tradition and be a factor come playoffs, they’re going to have to lean on each other, Heusser said.
The top four teams in the conference standings at the end of the regular season advance to the postseason. Heading into this winter, Urbana had won 19 of its previous 24 contests. Though still early in this year’s campaign, the Hawks are off to a 2-4-1 start, but are well positioned to contend for a top four finish.
“Our biggest strength is our overall team chemistry,” Heusser said. “Since a lot of these kids are juniors and seniors, most of our skill players have been playing together for three or four years, so they know each other, they know what style hockey each one plays. There’s unity in the locker room; they win together, and they lose together.”
The graduation of their two points leaders and goaltender from a year ago has left Urbana with some voids to fill this winter. Fortunately, there is no shortage of talent to step into those roles, Heusser said. But the challenge with high school ice hockey is that since it is a club sport—and not under the jurisdiction of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association as all varsity sports are—many of the highest level players must split this main season between Urbana hockey and their travel club teams.
“We could easily be 4-0, but a lot of times our (more experienced hockey) players can’t make the games on Friday because they’re on the road with their travel teams,” Heusser said.
Still, as hectic as it can be to balance both teams, junior Andrew Landry, who has scored a team-high four goals, said he chooses to play for Urbana because of the opportunity to play with his friends from school and represent their community together.
A trio of sophomores—Morgan Cleary (two goals, three assists), Tommy Coffey (three, two) and John Rempe (three, two)—leads Urbana in points with five apiece. But 10 total players have racked up three points or more; 14 players have tallied at least one.
Seniors Andrew Gnatowski, Corey Heflin, co-captain Dylan Leishman and junior James Denis have each contributed four points; Leishman with a team-high four assists, Gnatowski with two goals and two assists, Heflin three goals and one assist, and Denis with one goal and three assists.
Senior co-captain John Gallo and junior Tony Shi, who was a First Team All-County selection a year ago, have anchored the Hawks’ defense, along with junior Brody Channell and freshman Joseph Zibragos, who have split time in goal. The two have done well stepping into the integral role this winter; both are saving nearly 85 percent of the shots that have come their way.
With a core of talented skaters, who can “zip the puck around the rink,” the Hawks “are shooters” and thrive when they’re moving the puck around and getting shots off quickly, Landry said. Urbana also doesn’t shy away from using its physicality, he added.
The Hawks have plenty of scoring options—including junior co-captain Chris Rerko, who has picked up three points in only four games played—but as they gel, they will need to pick up their offensive production to compete in the league.
Urbana has been outscored 32-21 in its first seven games, though it’s typically only been the later stages of the game where they’ve lost their ground. On average, the Hawks have been within three goals of their opponents after two periods, but are being outscored 14-6 in the final period.
“Hockey is a game for everyone; everyone inspires each other and whether you play club or you don’t, we all play solely for our love of the sport,” Landry said. “Our team fits (Urbana’s) motto, ‘One Team One Urbana!’ While (making) playoffs would be great, we always take (our season) one game at a time and try our best to make our school proud.”