Ithaca Little Red girls, boys prepared to hit the ice

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Hockey season is here, and the Ithaca Little Red girls and boys teams are revved up for their schedules to kick into gear. The girls got off to a great start, winning a pair of games by a score of 4-0 against Canton and Malone before suffering a 2-0 defeat to Salmon River last week, while the boys’ season began on Tuesday night against West Genessee and continues on Friday, Dec. 6, on the road against Rome Free Academy.

The girls team may have three games under their belt already, but they’re in the midst of a 17-day break that leads into their next contest on Dec. 13. Due to the lack of hockey teams in the surrounding area, the Little Red compete with Section III teams rather than Section IV. So far, they’ve gone outside that pool of teams to kick off the season. Captain Nicole Nixon explained how she’s ready to play more familiar opponents.

“I’m definitely excited to play teams in our section,” Nixon said. “Skaneateles has been one of our biggest competitors, but this year, I think we really have a chance. I think Clinton has really stepped it up in our section, too. One of the teams in our section dropped out, and I think overall we have a really good chance this year.”

A key to success that the captains focused on is team chemistry. With Ithaca being the only hockey team in Tompkins County, girls from different schools don the Little Red uniform. Considering they’re not spending every day at school with each other, captain Leah Henseler stated that the connection grows over the course of the season.

One team-bonding experience in particular that helps the players come together is the annual trip to Lake Placid for a tournament hosted by Saranac Lake. Lake Placid has a special place in hockey history, as it was home to the famous “Miracle on Ice” in 1980. Captain Tess Crane remembered the cold weather most, while Nixon reminisced on battling the low temperatures.

“It’s really nice,” Nixon said. “One of my favorite memories is trying to run through the Lake Placid streets at like -10 degrees where everyone’s just freezing. You have to bundle up and duck into other buildings to stay warm. It’s definitely a lot of fun.”

This year’s trip is on Dec. 27, and they’re coming off a year in which they won the tournament. With that weekend definitely circled on the calendar, the Little Red are attempting to build a team that can make it further than last year, when they were eliminated in the Section III semifinals by Clinton.

“We’re pretty motivated this year,” coach Holly Norsen said. “We know we have a good team going in, and we’re kind of excited to see how we line up against Clinton this year because we hear that their team this year is pretty solid, too.”

They did line up against Clinton in a scrimmage after the first three games of the season, and the scrimmage ended in a 1-1 draw, which could be a preview to some great games down the road.

Ultimately, every season is a learning experience for the players, and that is amplified by playing with teammates from other towns and backgrounds.

“You can learn a lot because of the different coaching styles,” Crane said. “If your coach hasn’t taught you something, you can learn from the other girls who have different coaches.”

Nixon went into detail about that, citing something that happened at a recent practice.

“There was someone who got switched to center, and one of our other centers offered to help show her what to do,” Nixon said. “It’s a lot of us helping each other if something isn’t clear.”

It was a 9-5-2 finish for the Little Red last season, and coach Norsen knows her team is excited to get back to it.

“The girls are just happy to be playing with each other,” Norsen said. “They like showing up to practice every day. They’re all just good friends who have been growing up together all throughout the programs. They just enjoy hanging out with their friends and playing some hockey.”

On the boys’ side, the theme to this season is surpassing expectations. With only four seniors on the roster after 13 upperclassmen graduated last year, the Little Red are embracing the underdog role.

“We’re ready to bounce back from last year,” junior Dennis Kang said. “We had a pretty close regional game. I think we’re pretty fired up to be the underdogs that capture attention.”

The Little Red were 7-10-2 last season, but no matter what happens in the regular season, the team gets an automatic bid into the state tournament to represent Section IV (the girls do not).

It’s all about getting hot at the right time for the boys team, and they certainly did that last season. Ithaca won its last three games of the regular season, including the Cortaca Cup against Cortland-Homer, and then took Orchard Park to overtime in the state tournament before allowing a game-winning goal.

Assistant coach John Goodrow wants to take last year’s strong finish and build upon it this year, even with the large roster turnover.

“[The strong finish] shows what we’re capable of when we’re focused with our eye on the prize and motivated,” Goodrow said. “So, that’s what we’re going to work on this year, getting these guys focused every game, using that diversity and different personalities on the team to get that focus. That’s what we’ll be working on every day.”

The focus of the players, though, goes beyond this year. The juniors are looking to leave a strong team behind when they move on.

“I really want to see some of the rookies step up because, after our juniors leave in two years, that’s a lot of the team,” Kang said. “We’re going to have the same scenario we have this year where we have a huge group of seniors leave. We’re really looking for the rookies to step up.”

Like the girls team, chemistry is a big focus of the Little Red this season. Senior winger Sam Hynes-Klempa explained how they’re off to a good start on that front.

“[Chemistry] is really important, just being on the ice with them every day,” he said. “Coming to Cass Park early in the morning when it’s cold outside, you can’t be bickering with each other. You have to come together and work hard.”

With those first few early morning practices and scrimmages out of the way, head coach Paul Zarach knows his team is fired up.

“It’s very exciting. It feels like it’s been a full year, which it has,” Zarach said. “But it’s good to get back on the ice. John [Goodrow] and I did some summer stuff with the guys, and John did the fall team. A lot of these guys are amped up and ready to go.”

There’s no extended break for the boys team. Once their season gets going, it’s off to the races, with four games in the first nine days of the season. For both the girls and boys, though, it’s just great to lace up the skates once again.

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