Orono started an eighth-grader on defense. A freshman played right wing on the second line. And a sophomore got the nod in goal.
Youth movement? We haven’t even mentioned the other four sophomores playing key roles for the Spartans in Friday night’s 4-3 victory over Mound Westonka, most notably Bradley Walker, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound first-line power forward who possesses top-end quickness, an appetite for physical play and a deft scoring touch. Walker is No. 5 in Legacy Hockey's rankings of the state's stop sophomores.
It’s still early, and Jamie Bazil and Patrick Grady, two of four senior captains, aren’t sure where Orono is headed in terms of regular season success or a potential state tournament berth. But they sure like their chances as long as the pups are along for the ride.
“The young guys, they’ve brought a lot of energy for us,” said Grady, who scored the winning goal against the White Hawks early in the third period. “They’ve been awesome so far.”
Orono, which graduated 13 seniors from last season’s 22-4-1 team, opened this season with a bench full of wide eyes, fuzzy cheeks and frayed nerves.
“We are kind of starting at square one,” said fourth-year Orono coach Will Scholz. “I didn’t know what to expect when we came in.”
A close game against Holy Family through two periods ended in a 6-3 loss. The Spartans have gone unbeaten since, knocking off new Prague 4-0 and arch rival Delano 3-2 before outlasting the White Hawks on Friday.
With so many newcomers, Orono’s learning progression figures to be less of curve and more of a straight line. Straight vertical, the Spartans hope.
“Experience is definitely a little bit lacking, but once guys get more games under their feet I think we are going to start gelling,” said Bazil, who scored a second-period goal to tie the score at 3-3. “I think we will be something special to watch this year.”
Scholz hopes Friday’s game, in which the Spartans started slowly, gained steam in the second period and played their best in the third, serves as something of a template for the season.
“Hopefully each week it gets better,” Scholz said. “I told them the goal is not to peak in January, it’s to peak in March. That was the problem we had last year. I think we peaked too early.”
The Spartans, prohibitive favorites to win the Section 2A tournament last year, instead were bounced in the semifinals 4-0 by Robbinsdale Armstrong/Cooper. A season that appeared to be headed for a similar destination as in 2018, when Orono won its lone state championship, instead ended with bitter disappointment.
Continued improvement shouldn't be an issue this season. The potential seems limitless for this group, starting with 5-foot-10, 160-pound Carson Clark, an eighth-grader who was playing Pee Wee hockey last season. On Friday he was logging an abundance of minutes and was on the ice during most of the frantic final seconds when Mound Westonka pulled its goaltender in favor of an extra skater.
“I tell the refs all the time, and friends that come to watch the games, to try to pick out the eighth grader without looking at the roster,” Scholz said. “They can’t do it.”
Freshman forward Brooks Fegers, sophomore defenseman Caden Bickett and sophomore forwards Wyatt Dixon and Connor Lang also figure to show steady improvement. Sophomore goaltender Brock Peyton displayed veteran composure against the White Hawks, especially in the third when he stopped all eight shots he faced.
After Friday's victory Orono appears as good a choice as any in a section that has five or six teams all capable of winning the championship.
“I like how we are looking right now,” Bazil said. “I like our team.”