By Ross Forman
Saint Viator is young, yet very skilled this season. In fact, Viator head coach Tim Benz doesn’t mince words about his team’s outlook for the 2023-24 season:
“From a sheer talent and skill standpoint, this is the most talented group I have coached at Viator,” said Benz, entering his seventh season leading the Lions. “Last year, we struggled on offense. This year, I believe we will be (the) complete opposite. The other thing is speed. We intend to play a fast-paced, up-tempo game.
“It’s very early, but, from top to bottom, this might be the best. We are deep and can play any style. We can beat you with speed; we can beat you with physical play; we can beat you with our goaltending; we can outscore you; you name the style, we can adapt and play.”
The Lions must reload their defense this season after graduating four, including All-State star Jake Knieling and All-SHL player Sean Wilson. Two key forwards who graduated are Dylan Harer and Angelo Massaro.
Key newcomers include sophomores Ryan Loftus (RW), Jake Voris (LW) and Peppi LaBoy (C), and freshmen RW Connor Sibigtroth and LW Colten Neahaus.
Viator’s offense will be led by seniors C Charlie Hoffman, Sean Nutley and Vitalli Strutynski. “They are all big, fast, strong and are a threat anytime they are on the ice,” Benz said.
Seniors Jack Kuffel and Matthew Voris will anchor Viator’s defense. “These two will log a ton of minutes as they are our only returning defensemen,” Benz said. “We will also add senior Sebastian Pacocha to the mix, who will contribute to the blue line immediately.”
Junior goalie Brock is back and 6-foot-4 senior Pat O’Gara also will stand tall in goal for the Lions.
“Our penalty kill has been one of our strengths. We will continue to build on this and look to be stronger,” Benz said. “With all the skill and talent on this team, I look for our powerplay to be one of the most lethal in the league.
“Like everyone, staying healthy is key. Some players we thought to have breakout seasons did not get to that point this (past season). But, with a year of SHL varsity hockey under their belts, I believe they are primed and ready to go.”
This season’s breakout player may be junior center Aidan O’Neill.
“He was banged up a bit as a sophomore and that hurt both him and our team,” Benz said. “He is an extremely skilled player with a hockey IQ that is off the charts. He is one of those guys who can make plays blindfolded as knows where everyone is on the ice.”
Benz, 36, who lives in Libertyville, is in his 13th season coaching. He is also the hockey director for the Northwest Chargers.
“The SHL is deep ... it’s a dogfight every night,” Benz said. “With 11 teams and a 30-game regular season, this will be a test for all teams. New Trier Green and Loyola Gold are always good. Glenbrook North returns a talented goalie, good defense and a couple of talented scorers. Carmel was very young last year; they will be a different team (this year). Glenbrook South returns one of the top players in the state, enough said. Lake Forest returns a strong goalie and added some power up front. Stevenson lost some what I call ‘franchise players,’ but you can never count them out; they always compete. York seemed to reload with young talent. Then add in Saint Ignatius and Fenwick. Ingnatius has been tough to beat for 10-plus years; they are one of the top teams in the state. Fenwick has so much history and support behind the program, they will surprise many teams this year.”
Benz said the Trevians and Ramblers are the SHL teams to beat this season. That said, Benz is very direct on Viator’s goals for the 2023-24 campaign: “Win it all,” he said without hesitation.
“Our entire athletic department at Saint Viator is rebranding. This year’s Lions’ uniforms will have a new look. It’s clean, bold and sharp. Now that we look the part, we must play it. This is the second year having three teams in our program. Our goal is more program uniformity. We now all play in the same league; we all look the same, including helmet decals, and will be traveling to the same out of (state) events at the same time, etc.”