A year older and wiserAdjusting to a new coach took some time last season for the Red Wing boys hockey team, but now the Wingers like to think they’re past that as they enter year two under head coach Mike Belisle.
By: Nick Gerhardt, The Republican Eagle
Adjusting to a new coach took some time last season for the Red Wing boys hockey team, but now the Wingers like to think they’re past that as they enter year two under head coach Mike Belisle.
Red Wing started last season 0-9 and didn’t get its first victory until Jan. 4 but after that the Wingers closed out the season with a 10-9 mark. Red Wing advanced to the Section 1A semifinals where it lost to eventual section champion Rochester Lourdes. The loss marked the third consecutive season the Eagles ended the Wingers’ season.
“We relied on a lot of our underclassmen, not only juniors and seniors, but we had to rely on those sophomores because there were so many of them playing on our team,” Red Wing senior defenseman Jack Strusz said. “It took a little while for them to get going and it took us a little while to get going with them. We didn’t have as much team chemistry as we had in previous years.”
When Belisle took over for long-time head coach George Nemanich last season there were some tweaks to the system and the players needed time to grasp the new concepts Belisle introduced.
“It was just tough after Mr. Nemanich because he was in the program so long and he was teaching all the younger kids his system all the way up and to just switch to Belisle’s program just like that, it’s tough to go from one way to another,” senior center Mike Stegora said.
Now with a year in the new system under their belt the Wingers feel more comfortable and have a big class of upperclassmen to rely upon. Last season Red Wing had five seniors. This year there are 11 seniors and eight juniors, Belisle said.
“The kids are older and they gained a tremendous amount of experience last year,” Belisle said. “There’s a certain comfort level for all of us coming in to year two.”
Belisle has emphasized more puck control and paid closer attention to the neutral zone.
“Coach Belisle’s play has a lot of layering, a lot of give-and-gos, see the open ice,” senior forward Marcus Noesen said. “With coach Nemanich it was a lot more physical play, putting the body on, getting to the open ice and trying to get that dirty goal.”
With a younger team last season players were thrust into bigger roles sooner than expected. Most of the returners last season had single digit point totals. Strusz had 10 points as a sophomore to lead the returners.
As the Wingers gained experience last season point production increased. Stegora, who had three points as a sophomore, emerged to finish with a team-high 22 during the regular season. Alex Rezansoff had 17 and Taylor Hanson added 15 for the top line, which will remain intact this season.
“Last year what we brought back was unproven,” Belisle said. “We graduated a ton of points the year before. In that beginning of the season, in that 0-9 start, we were growing that goal scoring. We had guys coming into last year with single-digit points who were in the double digits, upper 20s. So they grew as point-getters, whether it was goals or assists in the system.”
Belisle has also put forth more of an offensive mentality with every player on the ice. He’d like to attack with four players and involve the defensemen more into the offense. With its top defensemen like Strusz, senior Dayton Johnson, Michael Bigelbach and Marcus Dodge back it’s a good place to start.
“It’s a deep blue line with fairly aggressive offensive skill so we want to tap into that and have that work for us,” Belisle said.
At the end of that defense is where Red Wing will experience the biggest change. Four-year starter Sam Amendolar graduated last year after he played in 27 of the team’s 28 games. Amendolar had a 3.22 goals against average and an .881 save percentage.
Junior Preston Blaney will take over for Amendolar in his first full-time action on varsity. Blaney started one game last season, a 4-1 loss to Shakopee.
“Preston’s more than capable of stepping up and filling in Sam’s shoes,” Stegora said. “I’ve played with him all the way up and I’ve seen him play great games.”
Finding support for Blaney is an area Red Wing needs to focus on this season. The Wingers scored fewer than three goals a game last season at 2.78 goals per game.
“We had to scratch and claw for all of them,” Stegora said. “This year we’re really going to have to crack down on getting shots and opportunities on net.”
Belisle believes the top line of Stegora, Hanson and Rezansoff can double its point total from last year and the second line of Noesen, Ryan Rehder and Tyler Grove will increase its production as well. Noesen had 13 points last season, Rehder six and Grove one during the regular season.
Red Wing made its way to the section semifinals last season as a fifth seed with a win over Mankato East/Loyola and a 6-3 victory over Mankato West and for Belisle it’s all about how the team performs in February.
“It’s a four-game season in February,” Belisle said. “We want to win all four games in the sections and it doesn’t matter who it’s against.”
The Wingers open the season Thursday at Rochester Mayo.