Wahconah hockey team eager to get season started, put last year behind it
PITTSFIELD — Toward the end of a Sunday night practice at the Boys & Girls Club of the Berkshires, Wahconah hockey players can be seen joking around with each other as they go through a relay drill. At stake is a set of sprints to the losers, while the winners get to relax and look on.
The scene isn't abnormal at a typical practice. What's different for the Wahconah team this year, though, is the on-ice chemistry already on display.
A year after an 0-19-1 season, it'd be easy for spirits to be low in the Wahconah camp.
Instead, both the players and the new coaching staff — led by head coach Matt Risley, who replaces Jeff Daury — are eager to see what the current batch of Warriors can do.
"You always want to come in with a chip on your shoulder," junior captain Ryan LaPierre said, "especially with the season we had last year. We definitely want to come out this year and prove we can go far and that we're good."
That quest starts Saturday night with a road trip to Drury. The Warriors — a co-op of Wahconah, Taconic and Pittsfield that is in its second year of existence — are hoping that at the end of the journey, they'll be back in the Western Mass. Division III-A playoff hunt.
"We've been skating pretty hard this year," senior captain Aidan Kotski said. "It's been really hard practices, something that we're not used to as a team. But this year is a bit different, we are all skating a bit harder, so we all have a better outlook on the season."
That outlook is an important first step for Wahconah. Kotski admitted that "we let a lot of people down last year, including ourselves" after going winless. But with a new season comes new hopes.
"We are coming out with a chip on our shoulder, trying to prove that we aren't what we were last year," said the final Wahconah captain, Connor Champoux. "That we are a year older, a year better."
The team will start with its captains. Kotski will help anchor the offensive line at center, while LaPierre and Champoux are both defensemen. With the lack of wins last season, the Warriors don't return a ton of high-scoring players. Wahconah does welcome back players like Mason Alfonso (five goals), Hunter Labrode (six points) and Ryan Polastri (five points). Other returners include Trey Massaro, Corey Bazonski, Luke Peplowski, and others.
Risley said that instead of leaning on one star this year, his Warriors will have to be solid as a collective unit.
"A good group of hard-working kids," Risley responded when asked to describe his bunch. "Like I said to them, we don't have a superstar here. If we're going to win, we are going to win with hard work and playing together, coming together and being a team.
"That's a recipe for success: hard work, determination and discipline."
The gelling between coach and players was aided this year due to familiarity. While Risley did watch from the stands last year — his son, Jake, is one of two returning junior goalies along with Quinn Kearns — he was also the coach for a majority of this year's team, when they were mites, squirts or bantams with the Berkshire Bruins youth organization. Joining Coach Risley on his staff is former St. Joseph player Michael Taylor Jr.
"Coach Risley knows us all, he's been coaching us since we were all little," Champoux said. "And coach Taylor is young and has played high school hockey recently. It's something we can relate to."
Risley said that Taylor's presence helps on two fronts: he can relate to the kids, and Taylor isn't afraid to speak up to Risley about his thoughts.
"The first thing I was looking for is someone who had hockey experience, that could bring something to me," Risley said. "I didn't want a puck gatherer."
The players also said that this being Year 2 of the new co-op, tensions among former competitors have simmered down.
"Yeah, I feel that this year everyone is a lot more comfortable, we know who everyone is," Champoux said. "There are a few new faces, but there is a solid core. The locker room has a lot better chemistry, and out on the ice it seems a lot better."
LaPierre, himself a Pittsfield student while the other two captains are from Taconic, echoed the chemistry sentiment.
"I feel like we have a tight-knit group this year. I've been playing with a lot of these guys for a long time, so that helps with team chemistry and everything," LaPierre said. "I think Year 2 with the co-op, we'll be more comfortable and ready to go."
Wahconah's home opener is on Dec. 14 against Ludlow, and the team's first game against Mount Everett is scheduled for Jan. 29.
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