GRAND RAPIDS — With nine seniors returning from a team that made it to the Section 7AAA semifinals last season, the Grand Rapids High School boys hockey team is looking to take the next step and earn a section championship this season.
Wade Chiodo returns for his second season as head coach of the Thunderhawks and he said he is optimistic that Grand Rapids can take that next step and claim a section title. He added that his first year at the helm of the team went well.
“I had a lot of fun; I enjoyed every single minute of it,” said Chiodo. “I had great kids, kids that are willing to buy into certain roles. I thought we had success for the most part but we didn’t achieve our ultimate goal at the end of the season so that was a sour taste in my mouth in how the season ended.
“But that’s sports; things sometimes don’t go the way you want and you have to reboot the engine and get it going again.”
Grand Rapids has started out the current season winning its first five games while outscoring its opponents 19 to 2. The Thunderhawks have wins over Cloquet-Esko-Carlton, Moorhead, Duluth Marshall, Hill-Murray and Duluth East, all worthy opponents.
“It’s going good,” Chiodo said. “I think it is still a little sloppy at times especially our neutral zone. But I would rather have it this way rather than playing our best hockey right now. I said that from day one that you want to be playing your best hockey at the end of the season.
“We are getting closer every single day but we have a long way to go. Right now we don’t have speed coming through the neutral zone and that is one thing that is going to be our emphasis, which is gaining speed through the zone so we can attack more in rushes.”
Seniors on the team include goalie Wyatt Pilkenton, forward Ben Bonner, forward John Bonner, forward Wyatt Holcomb, forward Braeden Holcomb, forward Wade Brouse, forward Hunter Bischoff, forward Blake Henrichsen and defenseman Jack Peart. Juniors include defenseman Easton Young, forward Joey DelGreco, defenseman Ren Morque, forward Justin Kerr, forward Garett Drotts, forward Henry Sterle, forward Hayden DeMars, defenseman Samuel Sterle and goaltender Zach Lagergen. Sophomores include forward Blake Mortenson, defenseman Will Stauffer, defenseman Kyle Henke and goaltender Myles Gunderson.
Chiodo said he is fortunate to have so many talented players and he said he also appreciates the willingness for them to understand their roles on the team.
“This is a close-knit team and they all get along,” the coach explained. “I don’t have to worry about that aspect of the game. That is part of coaching, making sure everybody meshes together into that one piece that is very good. Everybody gets along and that part is enjoyable. You go to the rink and kids have smiles on their faces, they are willing to work, they are willing to put time in. We know then that we are going to continue to get better.
“We are working towards that so we are ready to go once playoffs start.”
One of the strong points last season was the play of senior goaltender Carter Clafton. Chiodo said Clafton was outstanding last season and he hopes transfer Wyatt Pilkenton can provide the same results this season.
“Wyatt has done a great job. I always say that our goalies just need to make the routine save and he’s done an excellent job back there,” Chiodo said about Pilkenton. “Everything he has done has been great. We have only let in two goals at this point in the season and that is obviously due to our forwards and our defensemen who are doing a great job of buying into making sure we take care of our own end first.
“In the history of my coaching career I have always said we will build from the net out and all the kids have bought into that, and it shows from our goaltending to our defensemen to our forwards.”
Some keys to a successful season, Chiodo said, is to gain more discipline on the ice and understanding that penalties cannot be taken in certain situations.
“Those kind of things have to be shelved and put away because that kind of stuff will kick you in the knee during crucial times of the year,” the coach explained. “But right now our big focus is getting speed. We are not creating a lot of speed in our neutral zone and I am switching some things up. We do have a fast team and I do believe we can catch teams off guard with our speed all the way through our lineup.”
Grand Rapids was ranked No. 5 in the state in Class AA in a recent poll. Chiodo said Section 7AA again will be tough with good teams throughout. He said Andover, Elk River, Duluth East and Forest Lake should be tough in the section this season.
“I’ll be honest; I haven’t paid much attention too much outside of who we are playing next,” Chiodo said. “I don’t get caught up over what Andover or Duluth East are doing, I am worrying about Grand Rapids only. When we get to the last three weeks or month to the season, then I focus on that.”
Assisting Chiodo in the coaching department this season are Beau Geisler, Andy Shermoen, Dale Anderson and Kyle Koopmeiners.
“This is a great group of kids. I told the kids to cherish this because there aren’t too many teams in your life where you have a group of kids that get along this well,” Chiodo said. “I told them to have fun with it and take advantage of it. This group understands what is in front of it, they understand they all have to buy into a role and it’s been wonderful.”