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Senior-laden Robins ready for the opportunity two-division hockey brings
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The winds of change are blowing in boys high school hockey in the state of Wisconsin, and while most insiders agree the WIAA's solution to two-division hockey is far from perfect, it does provide an intriguing opportunity for teams such as the Antigo Red Robins.

A total of 83 teams play prep hockey in Wisconsin, and for the first time state champions will be crowned in two divisions, with the WIAA moving the bottom 32 teams in enrollment into the new D2.

Those teams are slightly altered, with a handful of schools opting to play up to division one. Division two does include some traditional state powers, including Superior and defending Great Northern Conference champion Northland Pines. The new setup includes four sectionals in both divisions one and two.

The WIAA's plan has been met with much debate, intended to give smaller schools a better chance at competing for state, it may do just that, although it did not increase the number of teams at the state tournament. Previously eight qualified, and eight will this year as well.

The Wisconsin Hockey Coaches Association (WHCA) had lobbied for eight teams in D1 and four in D2, but instead the WIAA decided on a “four-and-four” approach.

“I like the idea of the divisional split, unfortunately the WIAA was extremely foolish on how they structured it,” Antigo head coach Matt Borneman said. “The WHCA presented a plan and the WIAA ignored it and went rogue, with the current structure, hockey in the state as a whole was better off before, but as for Antigo on a personal level, the current structure is somewhat tolerable.”

As far as the on-ice product for the Red Robins, there is plenty of optimism a team boasting a large senior class, along with a number of talented underclassman can give conference favorite Pines a run for its money both for the GNC title and a state berth.

“Come February our goal is to be vying for a conference championship and working to get into the sectional final,” Borneman explained. “We have a long road to get there, but feel we have the team that should have this in its sights.”

While the Robins lost a pair of talented defenseman in all-Great Northern Conference second team selections C.J. Levis and Eric Langseth, they bring back a slew of contributors and nearly every player in its front lines.

“Those two brought a lot to the table,” Borneman noted. “Our team leaned heavily on them last year, our approach is for everyone to elevate their game to fill in the gaps.”

Leading the returnees is all-state honorable mention forward Isaac Wickersheim, the team's leading scorer from a year ago. Wickersheim tallied 35 points, including 20 goals, while finishing fourth in the GNC in scoring and tying for second in goals.

Also back is second-team all-conference goaltender Brody Bunnell. The athletic Bunnell was second behind Brett Wilkins of Pines in both goals against average (2.30) and save percentage (.905) and hopes to put up even better numbers in his senior campaign.

The leader on the blue line will be senior Chris Krueger. Krueger tallied 14 points in 2018-19 and will likely pick up even more of the scoring load this season, his play will be key as the new de-facto leader of the defensive group.

“We are going to go with four defenseman at the varsity level with all four filling different roles and responsibilities,” Borneman said. “Having a dedicated defensive coach this year in Matt Wolter to groom the defenseman is something we are very excited about.”

Six defenseman are listed on the roster, leaving five as candidates for the remaining three regular spots on varsity, led by sophomore Calvin Jansen, who saw time last season, freshman Landon Nelson, Paden Michalik and Riley LeVeque, a well as sophomore Frank McKenna.

As far as the rest of the senior group, it is a deep one, with forwards Jordan Arrowood, Kaleb Jaje, Dylan Lewis ,Tyler Schroepfer and Teagan Walbeck joining Wickersheim, Bunnell and Krueger, forming a nucleus of what should be solid leadership.

“Since the season has started the leadership is slowly getting to a level it needs to be at,” Borneman said. “Brody is definitely the voice of the locker room, with his supporting cast, the team should be well led.”

Offensively, the Robins plan to do their best to implement three lines, something it has not been able to do on a consistent basis the past several seasons.

“Some spots are proving harder to fill than others,” Borneman said. “The goals is to be three solid lines come February, we may have to take a few lumps to the head along the way to get there.”

Expect to see a lot of combinations up front, especially early in the schedule.

While Lewis is expected to be a front-line performer as he was a season ago, others likely to join him and Wickersheim on one of the front lines includes sophomore Garrett Husnick and juniors Joe Bartletti and Carter Michalik, who were regulars in last year's rotation.

Arrowood and Schroepfer, along with sophomores Joe Volpentesta and Reese Myre saw varsity minutes a year ago and could again this year, although Schroepfer will miss early time with a knee injury.

Assistant coach Brett Zelasoki, who runs the forward position, will definitely not have a shortage of candidates for his three varsity lines.

Jaje, along with sophomores Tony Kanda and Trevin Walbeck were also part of the varsity roster to various degrees a season ago.

“Coach Zelly has his hands full working to come up with the combinations that spark the team's momentum,” Borneman explained. “Having options is a great problem to have, a few returners are showing promise they might be ready to fill a regular varsity role, we are excited to work through the line combinations.”

Rounding out the roster is a number of other forwards, including sophomore Mason Berg and freshman Brady Vandeweerd, Zach Roth and Jack Hilger. Sophomore Aaron Converse will serve as Bunnell's back up in goal.

The Robins were 10-14-1 last season, tied with Rhinelander for third in the GNC, ending a run of five straight conference titles. While Pines brings back a slew of all-conference performers and figures to be the favorite, Antigo should be in the mix.

Others around the state agree with that take, as wisconsinprephockey.net's preseason rankings show Pines second in the state in division two, but the Robins check in at number five.

“We are very appreciative to get the nod from prep hockey,” Borneman added. “I don't think we are deserving of that as of yet, the goal is to get there and we have the potential to do that, we made sure to tell the team they need to earn it.”

Rhinelander should be strong again, but has lost first-team all GNC forward Abe Laggis, who elected to play junior hockey this season. Waupaca took second, but suffered heavy losses to graduation. Lakeland is young and improving and could contend.

Following the second annual Great Northern Conference Tournament, Sectional Two with a state berth on the line will nearly repeat the process. The eight-team sectional features seven GNC teams, with Marshfield swapped in for Medford, who goes west.

The season opener is this Saturday, as Antigo hosts Fond du Lac in a non-conference game at the Multi-Purpose Building, beginning at 2 p.m. The season opener comes a bit later than in most years, with the Robins unable to find a week one opponent.

“This summer I was upset I couldn't find a game for the first week,” Borneman added. “Now I know it was just a blessing to have the extra time to prepare the team and get them ready for competition.”

The non-conference slate will again be a challenging one, even with some longtime rivals such as SPASH not wishing to schedule Antigo this season. That does however, open the door for new potential rivals on the schedule.

In addition to Fond du Lac, Chippewa Falls, Marshfield, West Salem, Appleton United, KMMO, D.C. Everest, Bay Port, Middleton, Fox Cities, East-Merrill, Waupun, DePere, Neenah-Hortonville-Menasha and New Richmond are all on the slate.

It will be a challenge, but the Robins look to be ready for the opportunity.
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Senior-laden Robins ready for the opportunity two-division hockey brings
space
The winds of change are blowing in boys high school hockey in the state of Wisconsin, and while most insiders agree the WIAA's solution to two-division hockey is far from perfect, it does provide an intriguing opportunity for teams such as the Antigo Red Robins.

A total of 83 teams play prep hockey in Wisconsin, and for the first time state champions will be crowned in two divisions, with the WIAA moving the bottom 32 teams in enrollment into the new D2.

Those teams are slightly altered, with a handful of schools opting to play up to division one. Division two does include some traditional state powers, including Superior and defending Great Northern Conference champion Northland Pines. The new setup includes four sectionals in both divisions one and two.

The WIAA's plan has been met with much debate, intended to give smaller schools a better chance at competing for state, it may do just that, although it did not increase the number of teams at the state tournament. Previously eight qualified, and eight will this year as well.

The Wisconsin Hockey Coaches Association (WHCA) had lobbied for eight teams in D1 and four in D2, but instead the WIAA decided on a “four-and-four” approach.

“I like the idea of the divisional split, unfortunately the WIAA was extremely foolish on how they structured it,” Antigo head coach Matt Borneman said. “The WHCA presented a plan and the WIAA ignored it and went rogue, with the current structure, hockey in the state as a whole was better off before, but as for Antigo on a personal level, the current structure is somewhat tolerable.”

As far as the on-ice product for the Red Robins, there is plenty of optimism a team boasting a large senior class, along with a number of talented underclassman can give conference favorite Pines a run for its money both for the GNC title and a state berth.

“Come February our goal is to be vying for a conference championship and working to get into the sectional final,” Borneman explained. “We have a long road to get there, but feel we have the team that should have this in its sights.”

While the Robins lost a pair of talented defenseman in all-Great Northern Conference second team selections C.J. Levis and Eric Langseth, they bring back a slew of contributors and nearly every player in its front lines.

“Those two brought a lot to the table,” Borneman noted. “Our team leaned heavily on them last year, our approach is for everyone to elevate their game to fill in the gaps.”

Leading the returnees is all-state honorable mention forward Isaac Wickersheim, the team's leading scorer from a year ago. Wickersheim tallied 35 points, including 20 goals, while finishing fourth in the GNC in scoring and tying for second in goals.

Also back is second-team all-conference goaltender Brody Bunnell. The athletic Bunnell was second behind Brett Wilkins of Pines in both goals against average (2.30) and save percentage (.905) and hopes to put up even better numbers in his senior campaign.

The leader on the blue line will be senior Chris Krueger. Krueger tallied 14 points in 2018-19 and will likely pick up even more of the scoring load this season, his play will be key as the new de-facto leader of the defensive group.

“We are going to go with four defenseman at the varsity level with all four filling different roles and responsibilities,” Borneman said. “Having a dedicated defensive coach this year in Matt Wolter to groom the defenseman is something we are very excited about.”

Six defenseman are listed on the roster, leaving five as candidates for the remaining three regular spots on varsity, led by sophomore Calvin Jansen, who saw time last season, freshman Landon Nelson, Paden Michalik and Riley LeVeque, a well as sophomore Frank McKenna.

As far as the rest of the senior group, it is a deep one, with forwards Jordan Arrowood, Kaleb Jaje, Dylan Lewis ,Tyler Schroepfer and Teagan Walbeck joining Wickersheim, Bunnell and Krueger, forming a nucleus of what should be solid leadership.

“Since the season has started the leadership is slowly getting to a level it needs to be at,” Borneman said. “Brody is definitely the voice of the locker room, with his supporting cast, the team should be well led.”

Offensively, the Robins plan to do their best to implement three lines, something it has not been able to do on a consistent basis the past several seasons.

“Some spots are proving harder to fill than others,” Borneman said. “The goals is to be three solid lines come February, we may have to take a few lumps to the head along the way to get there.”

Expect to see a lot of combinations up front, especially early in the schedule.

While Lewis is expected to be a front-line performer as he was a season ago, others likely to join him and Wickersheim on one of the front lines includes sophomore Garrett Husnick and juniors Joe Bartletti and Carter Michalik, who were regulars in last year's rotation.

Arrowood and Schroepfer, along with sophomores Joe Volpentesta and Reese Myre saw varsity minutes a year ago and could again this year, although Schroepfer will miss early time with a knee injury.

Assistant coach Brett Zelasoki, who runs the forward position, will definitely not have a shortage of candidates for his three varsity lines.

Jaje, along with sophomores Tony Kanda and Trevin Walbeck were also part of the varsity roster to various degrees a season ago.

“Coach Zelly has his hands full working to come up with the combinations that spark the team's momentum,” Borneman explained. “Having options is a great problem to have, a few returners are showing promise they might be ready to fill a regular varsity role, we are excited to work through the line combinations.”

Rounding out the roster is a number of other forwards, including sophomore Mason Berg and freshman Brady Vandeweerd, Zach Roth and Jack Hilger. Sophomore Aaron Converse will serve as Bunnell's back up in goal.

The Robins were 10-14-1 last season, tied with Rhinelander for third in the GNC, ending a run of five straight conference titles. While Pines brings back a slew of all-conference performers and figures to be the favorite, Antigo should be in the mix.

Others around the state agree with that take, as wisconsinprephockey.net's preseason rankings show Pines second in the state in division two, but the Robins check in at number five.

“We are very appreciative to get the nod from prep hockey,” Borneman added. “I don't think we are deserving of that as of yet, the goal is to get there and we have the potential to do that, we made sure to tell the team they need to earn it.”

Rhinelander should be strong again, but has lost first-team all GNC forward Abe Laggis, who elected to play junior hockey this season. Waupaca took second, but suffered heavy losses to graduation. Lakeland is young and improving and could contend.

Following the second annual Great Northern Conference Tournament, Sectional Two with a state berth on the line will nearly repeat the process. The eight-team sectional features seven GNC teams, with Marshfield swapped in for Medford, who goes west.

The season opener is this Saturday, as Antigo hosts Fond du Lac in a non-conference game at the Multi-Purpose Building, beginning at 2 p.m. The season opener comes a bit later than in most years, with the Robins unable to find a week one opponent.

“This summer I was upset I couldn't find a game for the first week,” Borneman added. “Now I know it was just a blessing to have the extra time to prepare the team and get them ready for competition.”

The non-conference slate will again be a challenging one, even with some longtime rivals such as SPASH not wishing to schedule Antigo this season. That does however, open the door for new potential rivals on the schedule.

In addition to Fond du Lac, Chippewa Falls, Marshfield, West Salem, Appleton United, KMMO, D.C. Everest, Bay Port, Middleton, Fox Cities, East-Merrill, Waupun, DePere, Neenah-Hortonville-Menasha and New Richmond are all on the slate.

It will be a challenge, but the Robins look to be ready for the opportunity.
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ANTIGO DAILY
JOURNAL
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Antigo, WI 54409
Phone: 715-623-4191
Fax: 715-623-4193
Mail to: Fred Berner
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JOURNAL
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Antigo, WI 54409
Phone: 715-623-4191
Fax: 715-623-4193
Mail to: Fred Berner
MapOnUs Location: (local)

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