During the first period Oct. 25, the Oak Park and River Forest High School hockey club's varsity faced a two-goal deficit against Neuqua Valley, a top-10 rated team in the state last season.
The Huskies didn't allow another goal.
Then they won 3-2 on George Brennan's power-play goal with 3:48 left.
"Now we're coming into the rink expecting to win," said senior and third-year varsity player Grey Small. "Definitely from my sophomore year, the whole mindset of the players and all of the coaches and parents of the program has completely changed."
Under third-year head coach Dave Dyson, the Huskies (6-9) have made a significant turnaround. While their win over Neuqua was already their fourth in the Illinois High School Hockey League's West Division, just two seasons ago they were 4-22 overall. Last season, they were 21-19-3 and lost their opener in the 28-team Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois, Inc. top-tier Red Division playoffs.
The junior varsity also is 9-1 in its division. There are 42 players between the two teams, counting a couple of roving players on JV.
Varsity team members are seniors Brennan, Blaine Burkett, Mike DeAlba, Sam Phifer, Jacob Rosas, Small and Alex Staples, juniors Aiden Kelley, Paul Kovatchis, Riley Moran, Eric Mulshine, Ben Ostler, CJ Pospisil and Adam Susman, sophomores Liam Burns, Addison Ditzel, Peter Gonzalez, Max Pecenka, Patrick Schmidt and Spencer Smith and freshman Avery Andersen.
"We still have seven underclassmen. We're such a young team and we have such a long ways to grow," Brennan said. "Beating Neuqua and Naperville Central (7-2 Oct. 4), I've never beaten either of those teams. The sky's the limit right now."
The Huskies are No. 32 in Illinois, according to MyHockeyRankings.com. Dyson prepared them with pre-season games against top-10 rated Benet and St. Rita, which eliminated the Huskies 8-3 in the 2015 playoffs.
"It's exactly where I'd expect us to be in year three," Dyson said.
"We're in the expecting process, walk in the building expecting to win, having more kids coming to tryouts than I have room for. That's a lot of help from the community, the kids, the parents buying into a vision."
Dyson previously coached Wheaton co-op's successful high school team. His first season with the Huskies, they barely filled both rosters.
Last season, the program received a lift with the renovations at Ridgeland Commons, their home rink. "The best rink in Illinois and working with these great guys, it's fun to come," said goalie Ostler. "The ice is better than every other rink. It's lighter, which is great. Just having the fans, the whole atmosphere is great."
One of the banners at the rink acknowledges the program's 1975 state championship.
That kind of talk resurfaced when the Huskies recently discussed their season goals. The playoff championship games are at the United Center.
"It's never entered the mind of anyone so it's really cool that this is the standard for the program," Brennan said.
Throughout their season, the Huskies also are involved with the Housing Forward (formerly West Suburban Public Action to Deliver Shelter) program at the First United Church of Oak Park. At least five players weekly oversee needed sleeping bags, pillows and blankets.
The third annual Hockey Checks Hunger day also is coming soon. Players distribute blue fliers to Oak Park and River Forest houses to pick up donated food and items from those doorsteps on the designated date. Players deliver and sort donations at the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry.
"When you do all of that stuff, you feel good about yourself, giving back and helping other people," Phifer said.
Answer Book 2019
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