Thomas S. Wootton High School ice hockey coach Dave Evans knows what it's like to coach a championship team. Not just coach them, but interact with them on a daily basis, pick their brains about school and neutral zone traps and their favorite brand of stick.
So when — with his team sitting at 9-0-0 in league play as the regular season nears its conclusion — Evans said that coaching this team feels a lot like leading his championship teams of the 2008 and 2009 seasons, it's significant.
“I've had great athletic teams over the years, but it's that game intelligence, the ability to control the play with puck movement and smart play that separates this team,” Evans said. “That's what makes this feel like '08-'09. If we're playing smart and we're outworking you, we shouldn't lose a varsity game.”
The Patriots aren't only undefeated against Maryland Student Hockey League competition (their only loss this year came to Landon School of the Interstate Athletic Conference), they're outscoring their opponents by a whopping 72-14 margin. They downed defending champion Winston Churchill, 5-1, in an emotional game earlier in January and they feature six players with 12 or more points. It all adds up to Wootton thinking that, at this point, it's state championship or bust.
“I think this is our year to win states,” said sophomore Brandon Hall, the team's leader in points (26). “It's probably one of the best teams we've had. We're a close group of guys, we're all friends and a good amount of the team is seniors.”
Hall, who started playing hockey at the age of 3, has scored 14 goals and contributed 12 assists to Wootton's dominant cause this year.
“For a sophomore, the kid can shoot,” Evans said. “There's no question about it, the kid can shoot. It seems like if he gets one [goal], you better get on him because he's going to bury his chances.”
But what makes the Patriots so strong is not only their ability to light the lamp at an eight-goals-per-game average, but the versatility of their defenseman, especially first liners Austin Schoenfeld and Jordy Bretner. Schoenfeld, also a standout lacrosse player, has 21 points (7 goals, 14 assists) while Bretner has 16 (7, 9). The pair complements one another well as Schoenfeld is a steady defender with excellent puck possession skills and Bretner has the ability to transition with ease and join the attack.
“Austin's huge and he doesn't turn the puck over very often. He's very effective both ways. Jordy is a cut-and-slash guy. He'll spin and take off up ice,” Evans said.
Behind them, goalies Aaron Cooperman and Jake Mitchell have been solid as every component of Wootton's game is clicking.
“This is more than I expected,” said Bretner, one of the captains along with Sam Eichberg. “I saw from the beginning we were going to have a good team, but over the course of the year we've gotten better.”
Of all the wins, there's little doubt the victory against Churchill was the most important to date, but both players and coach know they'll likely see the Bulldogs again before season's end. And while that blowout inspired a confidence among the group, Evans believes the experience his team stands to learn the most from this year was the 8-2 loss to Landon.
“You're going to have games like that every once in a while,” Evans said. “It wasn't good other than it being a solid reminder for our guys to get their [stuff] together. It was a very good ego check.”
Now with the mentality that they can hang with any team in the league, the Patriots will round out the schedule with Richard Montgomery and Sherwood before the playoffs begin and bring with them hopes for the program's third title in seven years.
“It'd be great to win a title,” Bretner said. “I can't even describe what that would be like, but we've had a great year and we're looking forward to winning it all.”