The Hand boys’ ice hockey team is out to a bit of a slow start this winter after getting hit hard by a wave of graduations last year. However, the Tigers are progressively developing a winning mindset, while striving to go on a second-half surge in the 2017 campaign.
On the heels of an 8-11-2 season that ended in the first round of the Division II State Tournament, Head Coach Ken Mitchell’s club is 2-5 this year. Hand recently took an 8-3 loss at East Haven on Jan. 11, but then rebounded by defeating defending SWC/SCC Division II champion North Branford 6-3 on Jan. 14. Coach Mitchell said that as the Tigers look to establish new leaders, they’re also learning how to focus on the tasks at hand, along with the elements that they can control.
“Our goal is to always make an extended run in March with the State Tournament and you always want to win the state title. We lost a lot of guys last year and we are a young team this season, so we are learning how to replace those guys,” said Mitchell. “It’s about teaching them the game properly—just worrying about your job and doing whatever it takes to help make the team successful.”
The Tigers feature three seniors who are forming the foundation of their new leadership core this season. Hand’s senior captain is Tristan Sorensen, who’s joined by assistant captains Matt Rice and Ryan Hilton. Sorensen netted two goals and Rice scored the other for Hand in the East Haven game. Coach Mitchell said that all three athletes embody what it takes to win games with their performances both on and off the ice.
“Tristan didn’t play his freshman year, but as a sophomore, he personified a leader. He’s never had any issue coming to me and talking to me about things to help the team,” said Coach Mitchell. “Matt has been great up front and knows how to score. Ryan is a physical player and has a motor that won’t quit. He’s moved from forward to defense and he’s excelled there. He does whatever the team needs and the kids look up to that.”
Beyond the captains, the Tigers are further bolstered by the veteran experience of senior center Chase Freiman, senior goalkeeper Robert Smith, and junior defenseman Paul Gagliardi.
“Paul has skills second to none. He struggled in the beginning of the year, but we kind of reeled him in, and his game has improved immensely. He’s a great, coachable kid,” Mitchell said. “Robert has kept us in games. We are young on defense, but he’s held it down for us. Chase is a vocal guy and the kids look up to him. He works hard on both ends of the ice.”
Coach Mitchell and the Tigers have already faced some of the top squads in the SCC/SWC Division II ranks, most of whom have retained their key pieces from last year. Despite the challenging schedule, facing seasoned teams like these merely wets the Tigers’ appetite to reach the postseason and potentially face some of these squads again.
“Not many teams in our league have graduated many players from last year, so the SCC is tough. North Branford is a big game, along with Guilford, who got us the first time. East Haven will also be a tough one,” said Mitchell. “We also have a new President’s Cup Tournament at the Shelton Rinks that we are involved with during President’s Day weekend. We play Trumbull first and then Masuk and Branford are also involved. It’s a nice midseason tournament. With our record, every game is a big one. We have to play each game like a playoff game.”
The winter campaign is a long-and-winding road that ultimately proves a test of endurance. As a result, Tigers are bringing a workmanlike approach to the ice and will continue to punch their timecards while giving a maximum effort every day.
“We need growth, but the guys are growing into their leadership roles. It’s all about putting their boots on, grabbing their lunch pails, and going to work,” said Mitchell. “We have to get better in practices. You practice how you play. Hopefully, all of it translates into the games and turning things around.”
From the Sidelines
Ken Mitchell is in his fourth year as head coach of Tigers’ boys’ ice hockey squad and piloted Hand to a Division II state title in the 2013-’14 season.
The assistant coaches for Hand this year are Dave Sagnella, Dave Wirkus, and John Mendes.
In Hand’s recent game against East Haven, seniors Ryan Hilton, Rick Oman, and Jake Visgilio had assists for Hand in an 8-3 defeat.