Wahconah Icers Look Toward Exciting Season
PITTSFIELD, Mass. -- The Berkshire County high school hockey season gets underway on Saturday night with an event that has become increasingly rare: a Berkshire County high school hockey matchup.
Two of the county's three remaining programs will go head-to-head at North Adams' Peter W. Foote Vietnam Veterans Memorial Rink when Wahconah visits Drury on Saturday night.
Most of Wahconah's games will be against competition from the Pioneer Valley's Fay Division. Drury and Mount Everett are in the Wright Division, which means Saturday's game, while it counts toward each team's record for Western Massachusetts tournament purposes, won't count in their league standings.
But in another sense, Saturday's game is the kind that means just a little bit more.
"The Drury games, the Mount Everett games, those are personal games because we grew up playing against those kids," Wahconah senior and Taconic student Aiden Kotski said. "Those kids played in the same youth programs we did. We faced them. We all want to beat each other.
"At every game, we want to make sure people see we're a good team, but there's a little more when we face the Drury program. We're doing more than proving to our coach that we're good or proving to the fans that we're good. We're proving to the kids we're facing that we're that good as well."
Optimism abounds in the Wahconah program, which made back-to-back Western Mass finals appearances in 2014 and 2015 but has missed the sectional playoffs the last two seasons.
The title game runs were made by a differently configured Wahconah program, back before the current alignment that has a cooperative team in each section of the county.
Long gone are the days when the Berkshire County's Hennessy League could boast up to nine programs.
But while there may be fewer teams than there were in the Hennessy's hay days, there is a bumper crop of players on this year's Wahconah team. At Friday's practice at the Boys and Girls Club, first-year coach Matt Risley's team had 19 skaters and three goalies on the ice.
"It's huge to have the flexibility to be able to give rests if rest is needed," Risley said. "Especially the beginning of the year. It's a very aerobic game, and getting the kids up to game shape isn't easy. So the more lines you have to roll out there, hopefully everyone can contribute and play to their best ability, and everything will work itself out."
Risley, who coached a number of the Wahconah players in the Berkshire Bruins youth program, agreed that bigger numbers translate into competition for ice time.
"I've told these kids, there's nothing given here," Risley said. "Everyone is earning something. I'm a new coach, and it's a new season. I know you've had me before, but everything is going to be earned. There are no free passes."
Junior Ryan LaPierre said Risley's approach in practice has been resonating with the team.
"One thing we're really stressing early on is passing," LaPierre said. "The few practices we've had, I feel like we're doing a better job of passing and working together than in previous years."
"Last year, we didn't have as much chemistry," Kotski said. "This year, all the older kids ... played together through the Bruins program or Northern Berkshire or other travel teams throughout our youth."
With that new sense of cohesion and depth, a return to the postseason looks within reach at Wahconah this winter.
"We're looking good," LaPierre said. "We're working really hard and getting our wind back, getting in shape. There are a lot of young guys, and I'm confident in them and happy to have them on the team.
"We definitely want to make the tournament. Once we make the tournament, we want to go as deep as we can. I'd say that's the goal for this year."
Another goal: Make high school hockey in Berkshire County a must-see for local fans. That part of the Hennessy legacy can be resurrected, even if defunct programs may not.
"My dad has told me a lot of stories," Kotski said. "It would be amazing. We couldn't ask for anything more than to be playing in front of a packed rink.
"I feel like the first thing we'd have to do to get people coming back to the games would be to win our first game for sure. We have our first home game against, I think Ludlow [on Dec. 14], and if we don't win that game, people will think we're the same team as last year.
"If everyone works hard in practice, and the hard work shows up and we win that game, people will start showing up like they did 15 or 20 years ago."