Zach McElroy spent too many Friday nights planted on his couch last winter.
McElroy and his family moved before the 2011-12 school year started from Walkersville to Virginia Beach, where he enrolled at a high school that did not have an ice hockey team. Staying in on Friday nights — hockey nights — was like torture, he said.
“I was dying to play in a game,” McElroy said. “I missed it so much.”
He stayed in touch with his Walkersville High School teammates, such as Nathan Miller, catching up on life while slipping hockey into the conversation. By the end of his junior year, McElroy convinced his parents to let him come back to Walkersville for his last year of high school.
The move paid off. Now, McElroy and Miller, both seniors, are two of the top scorers in the Monocacy Valley Hockey League while leading the Lions to the No. 3 seed in the region playoffs. Walkersville lost 12-6 to Oakdale in Monday's first round.
Playing for the Lions isn't the pair's only hockey obligation. Both also play for the Frederick Freeze's Eastern States Hockey League team and they say the experience has dramatically improved their skills.
Miller, an assistant captain for the Lions, led Walkersville in goals (13) and points (29) during the regular season, which ranked sixth in the MVHL. Last year, he led the team in assists and tied for the lead in points with 16 goals and 24, respectively. McElroy, a defenseman and the Lions' captain, was right behind him this year with 12 goals and 27 points, eighth in the MVHL.
“Their Freeze training is definitely part of it. That gets them where they are,” Walkersville coach Sean Donegan said. “They've been hard-working Walkersville Lions for years. ... Both of them are great kids and good leaders.”
Being a leader wasn't always a word Donegan would have associated with Miller.
During Miller's first two seasons, he was only concerned about putting up prolific statistics, looking for ways to score when his teammates may have been the better option. He got the results. His freshman year he was second on the team with eight goals and 16 points. His sophomore year he was second in goals (10) and third in points (15).
But during those two seasons, Miller noticed a pattern with how Donegan lauded players — those with assists received the praise, not the players putting the puck in the net.
No one said anything to him directly, but he knew he needed to change his approach by getting his teammates more involved. And the points still came his way.
“I've come to realize that it's about winning, not the points,” Miller said. “People will look at the points, but that if you're having a winning season, that [means] you're good, so that's what I try to focus on.”
As much has McElroy missed living in Walkersville — he currently lives in Middletown with a close family friend — he didn't want anyone to know he was back. His plan was to stroll into Walkersville High School on the first day of classes in the fall and soak in the reactions. Working at the local Young Men's Christian Association, the plan didn't work out and the jig was up.
One day last spring, McElroy popped in at Skate Frederick to let Donegan know he'd be back, which, after losing three defensemen last season, Donegan was pleasantly surprised about. The year off had McElroy more motivated than ever, and Donegan noticed and showed it by naming him captain.
“He's been doing a really good job,” Donegan said. “He's my captain because of the way he came back and his motivation to play.”
Being away from the sport he loves was enough for McElroy to move away from his family for a year. Miller and McElroy's final high school season wouldn't have been the same if he didn't.