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Stevenson 2023-24 team preview

By Gary Larsen, 09/12/23, 11:00AM CDT


First-year Stevenson head coach Dan Wood is hardly new to the program. His father Jim and brother Tom carried the torch at Stevenson for decades, so it’s really just his turn at the helm.

Dan Wood has also been DePaul’s head hockey coach since 2020 and he’s entering his 11th season overall coaching at Stevenson, where he also played back in the day.  Simply put, hockey is threaded into the Wood family’s DNA.

“(Tom) still calls a lot and my dad was at our last game,” Wood said. “It’s just in the blood. They can’t just let it go.”

Dan Wood was an assistant coach under Tom on the Stevenson team that won a state title two seasons ago. Last year, the Patriots went 44-16 overall and 16-13 in placing fifth in SHL regular-season play. Stevenson then lost to Loyola in the quarterfinals of the SHL tournament, and reached a state semifinal game before losing to eventual state champion New Trier.

Last year’s team graduated 20 seniors, many of whom were key components on the 2022 state-title team. That list includes forward Davis Jegers, last year’s SHL Player of the Year and the program’s all-time leading scorer. Will Harlow and Dylan Jette were also varsity mainstays in the program, and the Patriots graduated their top seven scorers from last season.

There's always been a cold fact of life in high school sports: it's always out with old and in with the new.

“We went from the oldest team in the state last year to maybe the youngest team in Illinois this year,” Wood said. “We only have five seniors in the entire program now, after graduating twenty. But we’ve got a lot of guys with speed and skill, that care and are really tenacious.”

Stevenson will be led this year by three returning varsity forwards in Jimmy Brown, Brian Wojdelko, and Sean Yurkov.

“They’re the new leaders coming in and getting everybody reacquainted with the old culture. We’ll lean on those three guys a lot,” Wood said. “I’m a firm believer in culture and this team is already incredibly tight with one another.”

Replacing the scoring that graduated will take everything Brown, Wojdelko, and Yurkov can give. Wojdelko has been Stevenson’s leading scorer through four games.

“He’s got a ton of skill and he’s not afraid to mix it up. He digs the puck out and goes in front of the net,” Wood said.

“A lot of offense will go through those three but then we’ve got some guys from the jayvee team last year like Sam Winkelman and Brandon Smoller, who can both put the puck in the net. We picked up Van Bickers from Team Illinois, an offensive defenseman, and our leading scorer from the jayvee team last year was Rishi Gupta.”

Add forwards Connor Ponticelli, Chase Kassulat, and Chase Anders, and “we’ll score by committee,” Wood said. “We’ll have to be a lot more structured and a lot more disciplined, and do the little things other teams don’t want to do to score goals.”

Goaltending in the SHL is no picnic, and Stevenson will rely on a pair of goalies this year. “(Senior) Anton Likhovid is off to a great start and we have a freshman goalie in Asher Ali who doesn’t play like a freshman,” Wood said.

Protecting Likhovid and Ali will be a brand new core of defensemen.

Juniors Brandon Smoller and Sam Winkelman, sophomore Van Bickers, and a freshman in Matvey Tchernikov will be key in back, along with sophomores Kai Gigante and Frank Costabile.

Stevenson started the season 2-2-0, with wins over Maine and New Trier Blue, and losses to Notre Dame and Glenbrook South. Three of those games were decided by a single goal.

“We’ve played in some tight games already, and the guys have been supportive of each other,” Wood said. “When I say we’re young, we’re really, really young. But they’re on the team because they’re good hockey players. They’re going to make mistakes and they just have to learn from them. Even in our first four games, the mistakes they made in the first game were far fewer by or fourth game. But we’ve got to let them play and make those mistakes.”

Wood will strive to get his boys prepared for the meat grinder of SHL play, where no nights off means exactly that. He's also looking forward to matching wits with some of the best coaches Illinois has to offer.

“You look over at York with Matt (Boeing), the reigning coach of the year, and another guy that doesn’t get enough credit is (New Trier coach) Adam Cheris," Wood said. "It’s not easy to play with a target on your back so for them to go on the run they went on last year was amazing.

“I talk to (GBN coach) Evan (Poulakidas) as much as I can to get tips and pointers because he’s one of the best around. His attention to detail is incredible. I watch film on them just to see how they manage to be so good, every single year. So I have nothing but respect for all the coaches in our league.”