The Zamboni finished the surface of Moylan iceplex’s rink.
In the locker room, a group of players with Millard West written across their chests huddled around one player, Max Veller. He gave a pregame pep talk to his teammates before the game.
As he neared the end of his speech, he offered one last parting shot to his team.
“Let’s do this!”
No. 2 ranked Millard West hockey recently took to the ice against No.9 Lincoln Southwest in the 17th game of its season. Led by captains Veller and Seth Hollingshead, the team destroyed Southwest 7-1. Right wing Trevor Kuhn said the team played a physical game.
“We didn’t let them into our zone, and picked up rebounds,” he added.
Last Monday, the team picked up its fourth tie of the year in a bout with Metro North, 4-4. Metro slapped a puck in with only 3.7 seconds left on the clock in the third. With the tie, the Wildcats’ season is holding steady at 13-2-4.
Wildcat club hockey has been around for three years. In its first season, Millard West finished 7-10-3 and sixth in its division. Last year, the team went 13-5-0, but the Wildcats’ path to the 2013 title was a hard fought struggle, with close calls along the way.
Millard West lost its first game of the state tournament to Metro North, and faced elimination with every game the rest of the way. The double elimination playoff system allowed the team to lose a game, but still have the ability to come back and win it all.
The Wildcats claimed its first state championship trophy with a second victory over Creighton Prep in the finals, 4-2. Head coach Erik Johnson said last year’s key to winning was “teamwork and getting production out of everybody.”
Led by Veller, the team will try to repeat themselves and win back-to-back state titles. All the players contributed to the team’s success, with Veller acting as an invaluable asset, scoring nine points and two goals in the 2012-13 season.
“He (Veller) inspires players, gets heated, and wants to win,” left wing Grant Mallet-Bauerkemper said.
Veller is on his third and final season playing for Millard West. Players like Veller and Tanner Lerdahl, assisted by goalies JD Higgins and Van Christiansen, lead Millard West’s defensive players. The defense has only allowed 23 goals all season, as opposed to the 52 scored by the Wildcats.
“Max is the type of defender who stays home (on defense), and puts a lot of licks on people,” Johnson said.
This type of defense creates good opportunities for the team, giving the offense more turnovers and scoring chances.
In his three years on the Millard West hockey team, Veller has faced hardships, one of which came earlier in the season against Millard North. Veller was ejected during the game for arguing with a referee. Veller was suspended for a game, which turned into the first loss of the season for Millard West, a 2-3 defeat at the hands of Papillion. Veller has already spent 12 minutes in the penalty box this season.
Johnson said Veller leads by example, but does tend to be vocal on the bench.
Veller said the attitude of the team during the two losses was “pretty lazy,” which may have been a contributing factor. Besides that, he said the players have been “hard-working and upbeat.”
Despite the losses, the Wildcats are on a path they hope takes them to the same ending as last year. Before that happens, Veller must lead his team against rival Westside this Sunday with the puck drop at 3:45 pm at Moylan. The last time the Warriors took the ice, the game ended in a tie 2-2. After the game, the two teams scuffled in the locker room.
Veller said as captain, he has the responsibility to be “a role model” and the “smartest player on the team.”
Johnson is confident Veller and the defense can guide the team to victory.
“Goal scoring wins games, great defense wins championships,” Johnson said.
Millard West (13-2-4) …………………. 0 0 4 – 4
At Metro North (9-8-5) ………………… 0 0 4 – 4
Power plays: West 0-0, North 0-0.
Penalties-minutes: West 0-0, North 0-0.
Watch some of the action and Trevor Svoboda’s winning goal on the Wildcat Report: