Hockey Cardinals are ready to roll

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MTT News Desk's picture
By: 
Rob Reischel
Davis Bunz and Middleton’s hockey team opened their season Tuesday night./File photo

The players have changed — even more than expected.

There will be new lines, rotations, and combinations.

But despite some heavy turnover, one thing won’t change inside Middleton’s hockey program — and that’s expectations.

The Cardinals began their year Tuesday night against Beloit Memorial. And despite a bevy of personnel changes, Middleton will be aiming high once again.

“We have high expectations,” said Middleton veteran co-coach Steve Libert. “We expect to compete for conference titles and state.

“With a large turnover from last year there will be some growing pains, but we have the capability. We have a lot of work to do.”

Middleton went 18-6 last season and finished second in the Big Eight Conference at 11-3. The Cardinals reached the sectional semifinals, before losing to Madison Edgewood.

Middleton has reached the WIAA state tournament three times in the last decade. And the Cardinals have finished at or near the top of the league for more than a decade, now.

If Middleton hopes to remain a force, it will have to find a goalie.

The Cardinals expected to have standout Max McConnell back for his junior season. Instead, McConnell left the program and is playing with the Milwaukee Junior Admirals.

“I did not expect to lose Max,” Libert said. “As I have said before, good goaltending can hide flaws. But at the same time good team play can cover up for a goalie. Bottom line is this team will have to develop their own identity.”

Senior Zach Kasdorf and sophomore Tony Wuesthofen — who both backed up McConnell last season — will vie for the starting position.

“We play three games next week and they will each get a chance to play,” Libert said. “It will be new for everybody having a different teammate between the pipes.”

While goaltending is suddenly Middleton’s greatest question mark, the rest of the positions appear in good shape.

Senior forward Jordan Carey was Middleton’s second-leading scorer last season, with 11 goals, 15 assists and 26 total points. And Carey figures to headline what appears to be a strong group of forwards.

“Jordan is the most skilled forward, but needs to develop his ability to support and use his support this year,” Libert said. “If Jordan develops that ability he will be hard to stop.”

Senior forwards Brendan Sheehan (3-5-8) and Ryan Dohmeier (4-4-8) both have some experience and should be poised for big senior seasons.

“Ryan and Jordan are better at scoring, but Brendan is the guy that creates turnovers and crashes the net,” Libert said. “He is fearless and does the unselfish things that help a team go, but do not always show up on score sheet.

“These three guys are going to need to lead the way in showing their teammates what it means to be a teammate. They are going to be as important off the ice as on it. Senior leadership cannot be underestimated and they have to look out for their teammates.”

Junior forwards Taylor Dickert (7-4-11), Eddy Matush and Daylon Reifsteck all have experience and should contribute.

Of that trio, Libert said: “They have played enough that I am sure this year they expect to be players that make a difference. Taylor has played a lot the last two years so he should be ready to accept more responsibilities.”

Senior Dylan Wetzel is a high-energy player that could contribute. Sophomores Casey Harper, Nolan Kouba, Jordan Hylbert and Garrett Graf should also provide a boost.

“At forward we have a group of pretty even players, so it will be interesting to see how it shakes out,” Libert said. “There is not a wide disparity of talent between players. Determining who made the team this year was very difficult.”

Sophomore defenseman Davis Bunz (6-10-16) was arguably the best freshman in the conference a year ago and he should spearhead Middleton’s defense. Senior Vaughn Kottler is as steady as it gets, while juniors Joey Duff and Nikko Miller have some varsity experience. Junior Michael Bakken and sophomore Braxton Walby round out the six-man unit.

“It is an interesting mix of physical play and puck handling skills as a group,” Libert said. “They each have more of one and less of another, so some balance will need to be found.

“Davis, only a sophomore, is probably as good as their is in our conference with a lot of upside. Vaughn, while he does not standout, does everything pretty well and really works to help the others around him get better. Vaughn can make a good first pass as well as move the puck out himself.”

Libert believes his team will have good speed. And he expects the Cardinals to be awfully deep.

After that, he admits there’s plenty of uncertainty.

“More questions than answers,” Libert said of his team. “How good will we be at stopping the puck? How will we score? Two pretty important questions, eh?

“Like last year we do not have any pure goal scorers, but hopefully the foundation we laid last year of learning to score by committee will give us something to build upon. We shoot pretty well, but we need to become better at using each other and finding holes in the opponent’s defense.”

Defending conference champion Verona is the favorite once again. Libert expects Madison Memorial and Madison West to be in the hunt, too.

As for Middleton, the biggest question is between the pipes. If the Cardinals find a satisfactory answer, then anything seems possible.

“I dropped and broke my crystal ball, so now I have wait and see how Zach and Tony will play,” Libert said. “Team defense in front of them before and after that first shot is just as critical.

“What type of first shots we allow and then clearing the slot of dangerous plays as well as recovering the puck. We need to develop the skills and the desire to guard the castle.”

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