One year ago, the Westlake hockey program was hitting the ice for the first time. A roster full of freshmen and inexperienced players went through its fair share of growing pains as the season went on.
But the bottom line was this: The blueprint for the program was finally off the planning board and put into action.
With the 2011-12 season now underway, the Demons have put all of that learning experience to good use. On Saturday, they opened their home season with a convincing 10-0 win over visiting Canfield on the North Olmsted Recreation Center ice.
Heading into Sunday’s game with Medina, Westlake had played its way to a 6-0 record and earned its first championship trophy after winning the Nordonia Invitational Tournament over Thanksgiving weekend. A 10-0 win at Brooklyn Thursday night added to the early-season win streak.
Throw in a pair of wins during the preseason, and you can easily see why head coach John Duke and his staff are excited about the rest of this season - and beyond.
“We’ve got a year under our belt and the boys know the system. We’re not having to teach them the basics of what we want to do,” said Duke after his team used a six-goal explosion in the third period to cap off the win over Canfield.
“Now we’re allowing their natural abilities to come through in the system,” Duke said. “Over the last week or so, we’ve talked a lot about how they know what we’re doing, and that now it’s time to show their creativity on the ice. We’re all working on the same page.”
That was evident in the Nordonia tourney. The Demons opened the season with an 11-1 thrashing of Western Reserve Academy as sophomores Kent Axcell and Rudy Keppler each scored hat tricks. In the second game against Twinsburg, Axcell scored another hat trick in a 10-0 shutout win.
The third round game against Midview was a different story.
The Demons found themselves down, 3-1, with eight minutes left in the third period. But after scoring two goals in less than five minutes, Westlake found itself in its first shootout opportunity. Junior Ben Thurstone and sophomore Adam Sandor scored during the shootout to give the Demons the hard-fought 4-3 win and send them into the championship game.
As it turned out, the Midview game proved to be the highlight of the weekend. There was no suspense in the title game as Westlake thumped Nordonia, 12-0, to claim the hardware. Rookie Colin Adams scored his first-ever regular season goal, while senior goalie Matt Russell recorded his second shutout of the young season.
“It’s a milestone for us and a tribute to the hard work our guys put in on the ice,” Duke said.
“The coaching staff, the whole program and the administration have put a lot into this,” Duke said. “We have a great team in place on and off the ice. Thats an indication of how far we’ve come and what potential exists with the players coming up through the pipeline in the Westlake Schools.”
“There are good days ahead for Westlake hockey,” he added.
There are other factors in the program’s growth spurt, Duke said.
“There are two other big things making a difference so far this year,” Duke said. “One thing is having an experienced goalkeeper. Having Matt back there allows the guys to have a little bit more confidence.
“Lastly, we were a very young team last year. We’ve got eight sophomores on the team this year who all played as freshmen. From a player’s freshman to sophomore year, that’s a real big leap developmentally for a student athlete at the high school level. They’re a little bigger and a little stronger, plus now they know what to expect at the high school level.”
On Saturday, Westlake put that newfound experience to work right from the start. The Demons had the puck in the Cardinals’ half of the ice most of the game, even during Canfield’s power play opportunities. In the first period alone, Westlake outshot the visitors 16-1.
Junior Alex Miller scored the only goal needed in that first period, thanks to an assist from sophomore Connor Fife with 3:17 left on the clock.
The Demons even managed to score one shorthanded goal. That came with 4:30 left in the second period when senior captain James Jenkins scored an unassisted goal to make it 4-0, Westlake.
In the third period, the Demons got things going on a goal from Sandor off an assist from Keppler. A flurry of goals a few minutes later, including two by Axcell, made it 8-0 and gave the forward yet another hat trick on the season.
Goals by freshman defenseman Nathan Greenberg and Keppler closed out the team’s sixth win of the season.
The Demons return to North Olmsted this coming Saturday when they host Avon at 5:30 p.m.