Hockey Cardinals excited for new season

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By: 
Rob Reischel
Davis Bunz (9) and Middleton’s hockey team begin their season Saturday against Homestead./Times-Tribune photo by Mary Langenfeld

The mediocre play was one thing.

The drama — and the constant trash talking — was another.

Middleton’s hockey team endured a brutal 2013-’14 campaign. The Cardinals finished 10-11-2 overall, went through a midseason coaching change, and took a lot of flak from opponents everywhere.

“We were a laughingstock last year,” Middleton junior defenseman Braxton Walby said. “People said a lot of stuff to us on the ice last year. I think this year there’s going to be a different atmosphere.”

The Cardinals are banking on it.

Middleton opens its season Saturday when it hosts Homestead at 7 p.m. And the Cardinals are hoping for a reversal of fortune.

Middleton will be playing its first full season under coach Steffon Walby, who took over at midseason last year. That continuity and consistency should be a positive.

In addition, Middleton brings back nine forwards and five defensemen that played a year ago. The Cardinals also welcome back senior goalie Max McConnell, who left the program last year to play for the Milwaukee Junior Admirals.

“No one is expecting a lot from us,” McConnell said. “But I’d rather be where we are than have a big target on our back. I know we all think we can surprise some people. I can’t wait to get going and see what we can do.”

The first positive for the Cardinals figures to be a full season under Steffon Walby.

Walby was named Middleton’s interim coach on Jan. 16 after co-head coaches Tony and Steve Libert were forced to resign following a locker room incident. Walby then had the interim tag lifted when he was named the Cardinals’ head coach in April.

Walby is as experienced as they come, after playing more than 800 games in five minor professional leagues over the course of an 11-year playing career.

Walby was then a player/assistant coach from 2001-‘04 for the Mississippi Sea Wolves of the East Coast Hockey League, and later became the Sea Wolves’ head coach for two seasons.

When the Sea Wolves changed leagues, Walby stayed two more seasons as the head coach of the Mississippi Surge, and led them to a league championship in 2010-’11.

Walby moved back to Madison in 2011, where he coached youth hockey and spent time as an NHL scout for the Calgary Flames and the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Since returning to Madison, Walby has coached all of the current Cardinals at some level.

“I’ve coached everybody,” Steffon Walby said. “I think that’s going to help.”

A solid group of returnees — plus the return of McConnell — should help, as well.

During McConnell’s sophomore year, he was named honorable-mention all-conference after going 16-5 with four shutouts, an .898 save percentage and a 2.10 goals against average. Now, two years older and wiser, McConnell should be even better.

“It’s Max’s senior year and he realizes that this group has a chance to make some noise,” Steffon Walby said. “And he’s the kind of goalie that’s good enough to steal two or three games for you. I think he’ll have a chance to put up some numbers that will be beneficial to him after high school.”

McConnell said he enjoyed his time playing with the Junior Admirals. The constant travel was a grind, though, and McConnell wanted to finish up with his classmates.

“Really the main thing is I wanted to be part of the team again and represent my school,” McConnell said. “It’s a really good group of juniors and our senior class is very good, too.

“That’s one reason why I wanted to come back was to play with all of these guys. I just hope I can help and have a great senior year.”

The Cardinals should have plenty of talent around McConnell.

Middleton figures to field an extremely deep and gifted group of defensemen.

Junior Davis Bunz headlines the group after scoring seven goals and notching 16 assists a year ago. Braxton Walby is a grinder, who does all of the dirty work and complements Bunz nicely.

Joey Duff, Zach Heidel, Michael Bakkan and Jake Livesy round out what should be a solid group.

“Our top four defensemen have logged a lot of ice time,” Walby said. “That should be a strength for us.”

Middleton probably doesn't have a forward that will dominate the scoring column. But the Cardinals do have terrific depth, and hope to wear teams down.

Casey Harper (30 points) was Middleton’s second-leading scorer a year ago. Returnees Garrett Graf and Eddy Matush figure to flank Harper on Middleton’s top line.

The trio of Nolan Kouba, Jordan Hylbert and Daylon Reifsteck currently make up the second line, while the third line will likely consist of Justin Engelkis, Colin Butler and Wesley Rock.

“We won’t have one or two great scorers,” Steffon Walby said. “But I think we’ll have a lot of depth where we can roll three lines at you that can all be pretty dangerous. The only difference between the third and the first line will be the order I put them on the ice.”

Most people aren’t expecting a lot from these Cardinals.

The preseason rankings have had defending state champion Verona, Madison West and Madison Memorial all ahead of Middleton.

The Cardinals can't wait to get started, though, and put last year in the rearview mirror.

“I think we’re all really excited to start a new era,” Braxton Walby said. “We’re flying under the radar right now and that’s just fine. We’re going to treat every game like it’s a big game. We just really want to start a new era.”

 

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