Hockey: Worthington Kilbourne Wolves learning the ropes of varsity play
Sophomore goalie Owen Shaffer of the Worthington Kilbourne hockey team was taken aback by the speed of varsity play during a season-opening 9-4 loss to Olentangy on Dec. 5.
“I was very winded and not expecting it to be that fast-paced,” said Shaffer, who had a team-high 291 saves heading into the Wolves’ game against Springboro on Jan. 22. “Going that fast, you have to keep up with it.”
“We never got the puck out of our zone the first five minutes of the game,” junior defenseman Will Gundel said. “We were getting worked by the Braves. But we came back and we were in the game, so we adjusted.”
Shaffer and Gundel are among17 Kilbourne players experiencing their first varsity hockey season. Kilbourne hasn’t competed on the varsity level since the 2014-15 season, when it finished 13-9-0-1.
“(Varsity competition) is significantly better in every aspect,” said coach Bryan Cummings, who is in his fourth season with the Wolves. “You notice right from the get-go the speed is just double what we’ve seen in the past.
“We need to be able to make quicker decisions. We need to practice harder so we know what we’re going to do with the puck when we get it. You don’t have time to think.”
Several players, who up until this season haven’t played above junior varsity, said there have been some adjustments and growing pains as they continue to acclimate themselves to a higher level.
But the Wolves, who were 12-10 overall and 4-10 in the CHC-Blue Division before Jan. 22, have steadily adapted and have been competitive.
“In the beginning of the season it was a little bit of a struggle just being able to realize what we had to do to get better and be able to play at this level,” Shaffer said. “But at this point in the season, I feel like we’ve definitely smoothened out and been able to keep up with the level of competitiveness pretty well.”
“I’ve noticed a bit of a step up in just the overall skill level of players,” senior defenseman Kieran Cummings said. “On varsity, you kind of have to focus more on fundamentals and just the basics. You can’t really do anything without knowing those, and when playing varsity teams it’s pretty important.”
Kieran Cummings said his aha moment came during a 5-3 loss to Watterson on Dec. 19, as he and the Wolves started to realize the type of energy and focus required throughout an entire game.
“(It) was truly the first game that we really had to try all three periods and throughout the whole game, because they were obviously playing really hard the whole game, and they’re really skilled also,” Kieran Cummings said.
Kilbourne faced the Eagles again in an 8-4 loss Jan. 9, and coach Cummings said the Wolves showed heart when they fought back in the third period after Watterson took a big lead earlier in the game.
“They were up 6-0 (at one point) on us, and we battled back in the third period and scored three goals,” he said. “So that type of attitude, we just never give up. We just keep fighting and plugging away.”
Attitude is one of three pillars coach Cummings has stressed to his players this season. The other two are work ethic and “effectiveness,” which he describes as executing the skills, systems and lessons taught by the coaches during practice – and doing it at a high level so they become second nature during games.
“Those three things are important to us because it has nothing to do with their skill level,” coach Cummings said. “It has nothing to do with their experience; it’s up to each and every individual. Every player no matter who they are, no matter where they come from, they can do those three things. It’s all individual things.”
Sophomore center Simon Abbott, who was leading the Wolves with 28 goals before Jan. 22, ahead of sophomore wing Luke Walton's 26, said the team’s improvement is clear, particularly on offense.
“From the difference of our team from last year to this year, we’ve improved so much,” he said. “I think (this season), it’s more that we’re trying to be respected by other teams and other programs.
“I feel like our offense has picked up a lot scoring-wise, and we’re using power plays to our advantage.”
The Wolves’ four CHC wins were 7-0 against Dublin Scioto on Dec. 28, 17-2 over Scioto on Dec. 21, 8-2 over DeSales on Dec. 18 and 6-5 in overtime against Columbus Academy on Dec. 11.
After its game against Springboro, Kilbourne is scheduled to play another CHC-White opponent, Dublin Coffman, on Feb. 5.
Coach Cummings said he thinks the Wolves have an upset in them.
“I think we have an opportunity to surprise one of those teams,” he said. “Both are solid, very established teams. But I think we can come in there with the right effort and possibly steal one of those games.”