A short, sunny snow flurry in late October signifies that a long Michigan winter filled with hockey is right around the corner. The Pioneer Men’s Varsity team is coming off a successful season ending in a tough loss to the Trenton Trojans. With the loss of only five seniors last year and a stacked roster full of talent and experience, the Pioneers are ready to go whenever they get the green light to play.
The hockey team held an impressive record last year, finishing with a 21-1-3 record. That was enough to win the Southeastern Conference, Metro League, and the Jilek Cup.
This year, though, will see many changes to the structure of the season.
The squad has certainly had to make major adjustments to their preseason training due to Covid pushing back their season multiple times. The team was able to have preseason practices and games in September and October, and some have even taken to frozen lakes and rivers as the weather gets colder to continue their training during the pandemic.
Through the obvious setbacks, the team has had one mentality. Head Coach Frank Garcia describes it as “to do everything we can individually to prepare for the start of the season, whenever that may be.”
Although the players have been staying in physical shape prior to the start of the season, the mental setback of the continued pushbacks of the season are weighing heavily on some players.
“I am frustrated with the pandemic, because our season keeps getting delayed, and I know a lot of the other guys on the team feel the same way,” said senior defenseman Junah Whitelocke.
The team is antsy to get back on the ice, but players understand the risk that their sport causes, and are happy that they have even been able to get on the ice before the season.
“I think most players understood that hockey, being an indoor and high-contact sport, is among the most dangerous activities in terms of infection. Being able to practice has been a huge asset. We are certainly very lucky,” said senior defenseman Liam Schaefer.
Senior winger Adam Karibian agrees. “We as a team are optimistic on the plans that (the Michigan High School Athletic Association) has for us,” he said. “We have reason to be excited, but if there is a cancelation, be reasonable.”
This strong senior leadership is exactly what a follower of the Pioneer Men’s Varsity hockey team can expect going into the season.
This season’s team features 17 returning players, 11 of those being seniors. That allows for massive potential and expectations for the squad. Coach Garcia laid out his specific plans for success: “Win 16 games, win both of our leagues, win our Jilek tournament, and be academic all state as a team.”
In a competitive league and state as a whole, the team knows these goals will not come easy.
“The seniors this year are very talented, but they know that it will take a complete effort to achieve our goals. Our seniors will push the underclassman to work hard and remain focused on what our team strives to accomplish,” said Garcia.
The entire team is very aware of their lofty expectations.
“I think we are going to have an advantage over other teams in terms of experience,” said Schaefer. “Having the vast majority of the team being upperclassmen with multiple years of experience should lead us to the same success we had last year, and we certainly hope to build on that success as well.”
While the Pioneers achieved major success last year with a similar roster as this year, players make sure that the effort does not taper.
“We need to be able to practice and play together as a singular team unit,” said Schaefer.
Whitelocke extends upon this sentiment. “We all need to be on the same page about trying our absolute hardest at every practice, workout and game, and we all need to be willing to put in the extra work to take us to the next level,” he said.
As coach, Garcia believes that the team will have to believe in each other and in the systems that are planned to run. With these expectations, the players have a firm mentality going into the season. All that is left is the approval to play and the translation of their firm preseason mentality onto the ice.
The Pioneer men’s hockey team has found unique ways to build both morale and skill during the pandemic. Spirits are high. Players are ready both physically and mentally. Coach Garcia’s final message to his players going into the season is to subscribe to their motto: “Always team first.”