Playing what could be the second-best team in the Big Eight Conference again this season, hockey was the furthest thing from the mind of the Verona boys team when the puck dropped inside the Sun Prairie Ice Arena on Thursday.
The Wildcats, still reeling from the sudden death of Art Bishop on Wednesday, scraped together a 3-2 conference win on an emotional evening.
“Between his sons Jeff and Mike, they’ve played with every boy on this team,” Verona coach Joel Marshall said. “There was a lot on our minds. That kind of hit home a little bit and put everything into perspective.”
Art was, Marshall said, “an unreal volunteer and the ultimate hockey guy.”
With their thoughts understandably elsewhere, the second-ranked Wildcats (4-0-2 overall, 2-0-0 conference) got off to a slow start but weathered an early storm and got contributions from their top line when they needed it.
They trailed 1-0 after the first period but scored three unanswered goals over the final two periods, all from sophomore forward Walker Haessig.
Verona junior forward Mack Keryluk set up the first goal 9:27 into the second period, passing from the slot to the right circle. Haessig caught Sun Prairie senior goaltender Owen Leatherberry off guard and fired the puck into the short-side corner.
“I looked over for Cale (Rufenacht), and he saw that,” Haessig said. “I think he cheated over and left that corner open.”
Rufenacht and Keryluk each had an assist on Haessig’s even-strength goal 3:38 into the third period to give Verona its first lead, 2-1. Haessig extended the Wildcats’ lead midway through the third period, knocking home a rebound at 7:10 for his seventh goal of the season. Six of his seven goals have come in the last three games.
The state’s leading scorer through the first three games of the season, Keryluk (9 goals, 11 assists) had an assist on all three goals. Rufenacht (2g, 10a) set up the final two.
“Our line is really clicking,” Haessig said. “The first two games of the season, we tried evening up the lines but the coaches decided to make Cale, Mack and me a line. I think the chemistry just gets better and better.”
Sun Prairie (4-1-0, 4-1-0) came into the game averaging nine goals a game in conference wins over Madison Memorial, Middleton, the Eastside Lakers co-op and the Janesville co-op.
“Some of our early-season competition wasn’t as strong as Verona for sure, but we can really get up and down the ice and put the puck in the net,” Cardinals coach Chris Finkler said. “Tonight, we just weren’t able to do that quite as well as we did our first four games.”
Despite outshooting the Wildcats 17-4 in the first period, Sun Prairie didn’t have much to show for it as a result of the play of Verona sophomore goaltender Kaden Grant.
“I felt like we controlled the vast majority of the play in the first period,” Finkler said. “We had a lot of opportunities, unfortunately, we were only able to get one goal out of all those opportunities.”
The Cardinals’ lone goal came 6:42 into the period, from junior forward Ryan Batterman.
Senior forward Kyle Hagerman drove hard across the net, pulling Grant, who made the initial save to his right. Verona was unable to clear the puck out of the crease, however, and Batterman tapped it into the back of the net.
“I think we match up very well with Verona,” Finkler said. “We are similar teams, similar styles of play. It just depends on the night who’s going to come out on top.”
Last year, Verona outshot Sun Prairie 36-31 but rolled to a 3-0 victory behind the play of senior goaltender Owen Leatherberry in goal. The Wildcats bounced back to split the series, losing the early-season loss as a rallying point toward a state tournament run.
Thursday, despite only facing 17 shots on goal, Leatherberry couldn’t carry the Cardinals.
“I think our win here last year was a little misleading,” FInkler said. “They had a lot of opportunities; we just had good goaltending and some luck on our side.”
Haessig said the Verona coaching staff got the Wildcats fired up between the first and second periods.
“They were basically asking what our character was going to be and telling us to do our jobs,” he said. “We needed to play together and win as a team; the second and third periods tonight would shape who we are going to be this year.”
Every game is important as the Wildcats seek to three-peat at Big Eight champions.
The Wildcats are scheduled to play five conference games in 11 days (Dec. 11-22), traveling to the Eastside Lakers co-op (Dec. 11) and Beloit Memorial (Dec. 18). Verona hosts Middleton on Dec. 14, Madison Memorial on Dec. 15 and Madison West on Dec. 22.
Verona’s biggest challenge of the season could come just after Christmas, as the team travels to Green Bay to take part in the Showdown in Titletown tournament Dec. 27-29 at Cornerstone Ice Arena. The Wildcats open the tournament Dec. 27 against honorable mention Eau Claire Memorial (2-2-1).
The tournament also features top-ranked University School of Milwaukee (6-0-0), third-ranked Notre Dame, seven-ranked Wausau West (3-2-0), 10th-ranked Neenah co-op (3-2-0) and Madison Edgewood.
“It’s going to be a midseason battle for us,” Marshall said. “This is definitely the hardest we’ve ever put together in my 10 years here as coach. How good teams actually are will start to show in the next couple of weeks.”