Jeff Thornton’s thoughts kept coming back to his family when he considered stepping down after five years as the Sun Prairie co-op girls hockey team’s coach.
Juggling family health concerns with work and team commitments made time a precious commodity for Thornton, who decided the time was right to step away as coach.
Sun Prairie athletic director Eric Nee announced that decision Wednesday, saying: “The athletic directors from Madison East, Madison La Follette, DeForest, Waunakee and Sun Prairie want to thank Jeff for his commitment to the athletes, families and communities that are involved in the co-op.
“Jeff took our girls hockey program to new heights in his five years as head coach.”
Under Thornton's leadership, the Sun Prairie co-op -- known as the Cap City Cougars – advanced to the WIAA state girls hockey tournament three consecutive years (2017-19) and reached the sectional final this winter, falling to the eventual state runner-up Middleton co-op.
The Cap City Cougars advanced to the state title game in 2018. They defeated the Fond du Lac co-op 3-2 in overtime in the semifinal at the Dane County Coliseum, before dropping a 3-1 decision to the Eau Claire North co-op in the championship.
Thornton won’t soon forget the 2018 state tournament appearance.
“Our family struggles aren’t unique but they helped shape who we are today,” Thornton wrote in an email. "The memory of the hug my wife, my daughter and I shared in the bowels of the Coliseum after our thrilling OT win to get to the state final -- with Kathy battling stage 3 cancer and Taylor battling newly diagnosed Type 1 diabetes -- reminds me often how fragile life can be and how truly important family is. I owe them some quality time and it’ll be nice to start repaying it.”
Nee said the job has been posted.
Thornton said assistant coaches Tom Siegel and Mike Jager, who were with Thornton during his tenure, also decided not to return, which was another factor in his decision.
“Their energy, ideas and hard work defined our program and their departure opens a huge void that will be tough to fill,” Thornton wrote.
The Cap City Cougars (21-4-0 overall) shared the Badger Conference girls hockey title this past season with the Middleton co-op (Madison Metro Lynx) and the Beloit Memorial co-op, each with 10-2-0 records.
The Cap City Cougars, ranked fifth in the state, lost to the second-ranked Metro Lynx 3-0 in the WIAA sectional final Feb. 28 at Sun Prairie Ice Arena.
“I'm proud of our accomplishments on and off the ice and will miss the interactions with the players and coaches tremendously,” Thornton wrote. “Along the way our players raised several thousand dollars for the fight against cancer, volunteered thousands of hours in our community, and quietly helped shaped the lives of our youngest skaters -- all while pulling down great grades at school, working odd jobs to help fund their college dreams and spending countless hours on the ice.
“It is them that I am most proud of and getting to be a part of their lives is extremely rewarding. I'm looking forward to hearing how they change the world as they head to school and/or enter the workforce.”
As a longtime hockey fan who attended University of Wisconsin hockey games, Thornton was thrilled with his team’s trips to the state tournament.
“I had an opportunity to coach incredible young women and work alongside wonderful coaches and will treasure those memories forever,” he wrote. “The awe I felt walking into the Coliseum (where my heroes played) for our state tournament appearances I simply cannot describe.
"I actually went over and sat down in the seat that I occupied every Friday night during the Badger hockey season while growing up (Section 325, Row B, Seat 5) and just took some time to let it all soak in.
“How many people can say they managed to accomplish one of their lifelong dreams? How lucky I truly am! And while I would have loved to win it all (we came close), the experience for our athletes, coaches and families is something I wish everyone could experience.
“This game has given me, and my family, so much over the years and I hope I've been able to repay at least a little bit of it. I'll miss it for sure -- but maybe not as much at 4 a.m. on a February day when it's 20 degrees below zero and the wind is howling and I need to head across town to run a practice. …”
The reasons added up for Thornton to make this decision.
Now, he believed, was the time to be with his family and make amends for family events he’s missed in recent years.
He also said his wife and daughter are at a higher risk during the COVID-19 pandemic and it wasn’t in their best interest for Thornton to constantly be around a team of high school players.
“With a young team coming in, it's also a great time for a new coach to put their ideas and systems to work,” Thornton wrote. “I had that opportunity five years ago and it helped shaped our program.”
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