The Los Angeles Kings High School Hockey League, which began in April 2015, has brought three high school hockey teams to the Santa Clarita Valley.
One team has managed to stand taller than the others, however.
West Ranch, which is also in its second year of existence, entered this season as the reigning top-finisher in the SCV. The Wildcats finished second overall during the regular season and reached the semifinals last year before losing to Kern County.
Although they’ve experienced success, this year’s approach is different from the last’s.
“We’re changing the way that we do things,” said coach Chris LeCornu. “We’re more of a grinding team.”
“We like to get into corners and apply a lot of pressure,” said center Justin Badillo. “We don’t like to buy the other team time. The boys like to be an aggressive team. We don’t mind hitting.”
The difference is noticeable, particularly on the penalty kill, which is currently clicking at a pace of 90 percent, paired with one shorthanded goal.
“We’re an aggressive penalty kill unit,” LeCornu said. “There’s a lot of good team sacrifice in that category. It really throws a wrench in power play units.”
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The team is 2-1 on the season, and that one loss was suffered against defending LAKHSHL champions, the Santa Barbara Royals.
In each of their wins, the Wildcats have come out on top by only one goal. They’re working to upgrade the defensive systems to increase the score differential.
“That’s the biggest challenge when you bring a team together,” LeCornu said. “Is getting everybody to buy into the systems and to understand the big picture of what the team will evolve into.”
Tristan Warr currently leads the team in terms of goals with five. His all-around offensive abilities make him a valuable weapon.
“Tristan is a very strong finesse player,” LeCornu said. “He has amazing hands. He’s got speed. He has one of the hardest shots I’ve seen at this level of play in a high school league. He’s a talented individual.”
Although Warr’s quick mitts are an asset to the team, the team’s cohesion will take the team farther than the skills of just one player.
“The systems are string to come together,” said Badillo “Our chemistry as improved intensely. This year we came together as a group of brothers with one objective.
“The objective is to come out strong and to come out fast. To come out strong with confidence and put any situation necessary to get the win.”
Here’s a look at how the rest of SCV hockey is shaping up this season:
Santa Clarita Cobras
With a year’s experience under their belts, the Cobras are ready to take their team to the next level.
Last year’s squad only had around 10 players. This year, the roster is up to 18. The increased numbers point to a rebound from last season’s dead-last league finish.
“We reformed the way that we’re approaching hockey,” said coach Matt Keef. “We added athletic training programs, more ice time, mostly more player involvement. Essentially we want to be out there more. Because of that, we had bigger growth this year.”
On the ice, the Cobras are working to establish their identity. They’re 1-2 on the season, with their only win coming in overtime against the Burbank Cougars, 3-2.
Getting organized and gaining experience is the first step, and Daniel Bennett, who is in his first year with the team, is helping with that.
Previously, the forward played hockey for the California Heat Midget A team.
“The beginning was a little horrible,” he said. “But there’s been lots of improvements from a few beginner players.”
Bennett also brings a sense of professionalism to the team.
“I try to tell them what to do, tell them to focus up if they’re messing around,” he said. “Especially during dry land. Just to teach them the basic stuff on the ice and off.”
The Cobras as looking forward to their more challenging opponents and heating up the rivalry between hockey teams in the SCV, too.
“(Santa Barbara has) been on our radar since the start of the year,” Keef said. “We have a rivalry with West Ranch. Those are the two games we mark on the calendar to really get prepared for. Valencia High School … that’s a fun and entertaining game for the kids.”
Valencia High ice hockey is building a team from the ground up.
The Vikings, who are in their first year in the LAKHSHL, have a roster of mixed talent and experience. All the players have competed in some form, whether in a recreational league or with another club.
“All have played before but not all have played higher levels,” said coach Andrew Yi. “There’s lots of transitioning and this is a stepping stone. This is a growth year for a lot of these kids.”
Yi’s experience includes coaching hockey at Valencia Ice Station and coaching college roller hockey at the University of California, Irvine.
After three games this season, Yi and his team are searching for their first win. To jumpstart progress, the team’s focus is moving the puck into the attacking zone and keeping it there.
“We’re decent defensively,” Yi said. “But we start breaking down in the second and third periods because of how long we stay in the defensive zone and the lack of puck movement in the offensive zone. Playing defense all game really wears on them.”
Luke Rowe, a center, brings eight years of travel hockey experience to the team.
“A lot of players are motivated and they want to play,” Rowe said. “They don’t have the skill and they just want to learn … I try to tell them what they’re doing wrong. If I see they mess up, I try to fix what their mistakes are.”
Despite the first-year struggles that every new team encounters, Yi is optimistic about his team’s potential.
“Right now we’re in a good place even though we haven’t won a game and we have a lack of scoring,” he said. “They have a great attitude toward the game. They have a great attitude and are improving themselves as they go along.”