Quite a list of unprecedented challenges faced the Verona boys hockey team over the course of the season.
And yet, the defending WIAA Division 1 state champion Wildcats are gearing up for their fourth consecutive trip to the state tournament.
The 15-6-0 Wildcats will be an underdog at 7 p.m. Thursday when they visit top-seeded University School of Milwaukee (24-2-0) in a semifinal. The winner will play in the championship game at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at South Wood County Rink in Wisconsin Rapids.
For the first two-thirds of the hockey season, Verona was not allowed to hold practices or games under the auspices of the high school or the WIAA. So the group played instead as a Wisconsin Amateur Hockey Association club team. Once Dane County relaxed its COVID-19 gathering guidelines to allow for limited practices and games outside the county, the Wildcats made the challenging transition back into the WIAA.
“It was difficult,” coach Joel Marshall recalled of the January transition period. “The personnel that were running (the club team), volunteers and parents, know it's a close-knit group of players who have been together for four years.
"They tried to set the teams close to what they thought would be a varsity team and JV team. So coming in, I'll say it was as smooth as it could’ve been.”
Marshall added that while the players were competing on the club team, they also had an entirely different set of coaches and staff, due to WIAA regulations barring high school coaches from most out-of-season contact with players. After the players made the shift back, Marshall faced the task of jumping onto the moving train, tightening up areas of disorganization and building the group into another potential state qualifier.
While the Wildcats lost three of their first four games during the transition, they gained momentum and extended their winning streak to four games with a 5-2 victory over Waunakee in a sectional final on Saturday.
For the players, especially seniors, this journey to the state championship had a much deeper meaning. The absence of the locker room as well as other team-associated events took away shared down time and socialization, but affected critical team chemistry.
“You know, the classic team dinners and meals and workouts (turned into) video chats and stuff like that,” Marshall said. "The old stuff was out. It was just ‘Hey, (at least) you get that time on the ice.’ And then you've got to go. There's no locker room and kind of clubhouse feel of team bonding, and that was kind of at a miss.”
Forward Nathan Jurrens, a senior and team captain competing in his fourth consecutive WIAA state tournament, was out with an injury for the first half of the season. Although he couldn’t join his fellow teammates on the ice, Jurrens — a first-team Wisconsin Hockey Coaches Association All-State pick last year — still attended every practice and game to provide support. He has scored three goals and seven assists in nine games.
“I may have been on the bench, but I was definitely with the boys the whole entire time,” Jurrens said. “This is our last shot to get a state tournament. I mean, we got one last year, we do have what it takes to win it again this year."
Sophomore forward Reece Cordray leads the Wildcats with 17 goals and 32 points. Senior forward Leo Renlund (an All-State honorable mention pick last year) has 11 goals and 29 points, junior Anthony Heinrichs has 11 goals and 25 points, and senior Walker Haessig (an All-State honorable mention pick last year) has 13 goals and 22 points.
Senior defenseman Josh Osting, an honorable mention All-State pick last year, has 10 points on the year. Senior goaltender Kaden Grant, a first-team All-State pick, has a 1.92 goals-against average and .928 save percentage.
"It has to take all of us, not just the seniors," Jurrens said. "It's a whole entire team effort. We're definitely going to have to come out and give it our all, and especially for our seniors. That's a little bit more motivation for us to give it our all.”