The Kenston hockey team might be playing more defense than the Ice Bombers have become accustomed to in recent years, but, with senior netminder Jason Hildebran between the pipes, giving up freebies will be few and far between.

Kenston is returning to the ice on back-to-back 26-win campaigns that ended in district quarterfinals action under head coach Tom Fritsche, who is now in his third year at the helm.

But the Bombers graduated three of their top four forwards from a squad that ran just two lines in tight games last year, while they also lost their top two defenders. Five players don’t seem like a hefty turnover in hockey, but Kenston has just 13 skates and three goalies on its varsity roster this season.

“We have a lot more new players than we’ve had in the past,” coach Fritsche said. “So, it’s going to be a different kind of year. We’re not going to be able to really dominate some of the kids in the lower divisions, and we’re going to have to play perfect games if we want to win in our division.”

In addition to goaltender Hildebran, Kenston returns the experience of four forwards and two defensemen who logged serious varsity minutes a year ago, when the Ice Bombers went 9-3 in the upper Red Division of the Greater Cleveland High School Hockey League.

But Kenston won’t have a tune-up game before its season opener on the road against Rocky River at 4:10 p.m. Saturday. A perennial power, the Ice Pirates were the Baron Cup I runners-up last season.

But, again, with netminder Hildebran, an assistant captain who took over starting goalie duties at the end of his freshman campaign in 2017, Kenston has an opportunity to win every game, Fritsche said.

In the district quarterfinals last year, Hildebran collected 51 saves against 52 shots during the Bombers’ 1-0 loss against eventual champion University School, which netted the game-winning goal with 36 seconds left in regulation.

“That’s going to be a huge part of our game,” Fritsche said of his four-year starter. “I mean, Jason’s lined up to be one of the best goalies in the league, if not the best. It should be a big load on his shoulders this year, but I think he’s ready to handle it. He’s prepared to do whatever he can to help us win. With him in net, that’s why I think we have a chance to win any game, because he can stand on his head.”

Returning with varsity experience on defense, meanwhile, are junior Paxton Phillips and sophomore Cooper Akers, who will carry the brunt of the load, while freshman Chase Parker shows promise with his size and ability, the coach said.

Sophomore Jameson Parker, of no relation to Chase, just started playing hockey last year, but he will also log some minutes on defense.

“Paxton and Cooper both got a lot better,” Fritsche said. “They were up at the rink a lot over the summer. And Paxton, as a junior, he’s really grown into a hockey player. So, hopefully, he can step up and fill some of that void left there. But him and Cooper, and then we have a freshman defenseman that’s a pretty big kid, Chase Parker. He’s young and new to high school, but he’s a pretty good hockey player, so he’ll be able to learn pretty quickly.”

Starting practice Nov. 1, Kenston played two pre-season scrimmages, the first against Amherst Steele on Nov. 9 and the latter against Aurora on Nov. 16. Steele went 13-0 in the middle White Division of the GCHSHL last year, while Aurora went 9-5 in the lower Blue Division.

Fritsche said a key piece for some of his novice players was to find energy to contribute in their roles. Sometimes players overthink the game when they would better benefit from just going a million miles per hour and let what happens happen, he said.

“I thought the kids learned a little bit more of what I expect of them this year,” Fritsche said. “We scrimmaged the week before against Amherst. For some of the new kids, it was their first time playing in a game. They can all skate well, and they can all pass well, but they’re just learning the hockey game part of it. I was just trying to get more energy out of them, and I thought they played with a lot more energy and intensity against Aurora.”

Kenston’s top returning forward is senior captain Val Carriero, who was a starting center on the Bombers’ first line last year, but both of his wingers, Kyle Silk and Bennett Wenger, graduated. Carriero and Wenger were first-team all-GCHSHL selections in the Red Division last year.

“Val Carriero is going to be our main guy,” Fritsche said. “I think he had 110 points last year. So, he’s going to carry the load offensively.”

Returning with experience on Kenston’s second line from a year ago include senior wingers Tim Matty, a four-year varsity player, Remy Maurer and Peyton Raypholtz.

“Those four are about all we have who really played last year,” Fritsche said. “After that, it’s a decent drop to the next group of guys who are just going to try to learn it as they go kind of thing.”

Elite high school hockey teams usually play three lines of forwards, sometimes four, depending on roster depth and the competitiveness of each game, but playing anything less than two full lines becomes quite the obstacle in terms of gassing out legs.

With nine forwards on Kenston’s roster, Fritsche said he might try to play Carriero and Matty at center on every other shift and then rotate three shifts of wingers, but that’s all to be determined. Any way he slices it, forward Carriero and defenseman Phillips will be playing extended minutes and have to learn how to pace themselves, he said.

“I mean, it’s a natural tendency for people to just stand there and watch when (Carriero) has the puck or when he’s doing what he does,” Fritsche said. “So, I just try to harp on everyone else to just try their best to skate with him. So, when he has the puck, they have to be able to go to net, because that way they’ll at least draw some attention from the other defenders.

“We can’t depend on Val to take on two defenders every time he goes up the ice.”

Not many people in the Northeast Ohio hockey community, if any, thought Kenston would be able to play a 1-0 game against state final-four perennial University School last year, but the Bombers did so by simply competing, playing hard and seeing what happens at the end of three periods, the coach said.

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