COLERAINE — Although the Greenway High School boys hockey team will be young this season, the team is teeming with talent as the Raiders opened their 2017-18 season at home Friday against Mound/Westonka/Watertown/Mayer at Hodgins-Berardo Arena in Coleraine.
Grant Clafton, who is beginning his third season as head coach of the team, said it was a banner year for the Raiders last season as Greenway won more than 20 games, reaching the Section 7A championship game before losing to Hermantown. He said the Raiders lost a great group of seniors from last year’s team.
“We lost a lot of experience that really helped out. Every single year it is a different group of kids and a different group of personalities, and every single season has a unique touch to it,” Clafton said. “You do miss the kids after they graduate.”
The Greenway Bantam team has excelled in recent seasons and it will be products from that team that will bolster the Raiders this season.
“We are young; we lost a lot but we also gained a lot obviously with what we have coming from the Bantam level and going to two state tournaments at the Bantam level,” Clafton said. “These kids have been working hard, they expect to win and they have an idea of what it takes to have success. Hopefully we can take that to the next level and make a good run at it again this year.”
Clafton said having success and winning at the high school level is extremely important for the development of youth programs. He said that the Raiders have been a winning team the past three years, which the young players at lower levels get to see. He said that motivates the young athletes.
“It kind of bleeds throughout the program and you kind of start getting that culture back that was on its way back prior to me getting here,” Clafton explained.
Clafton said senior leadership will be important for Greenway this season, and the Raider seniors will be led by versatile athlete Aksel Jenson, a player who plays both defense and forward.
“Aksel has played a lot of minutes for our hockey team the last two years and he has been asked to do a lot of things that are not really flashy,” Clafton said. “He is kind of like the ultimate teammate because he is willing to do anything that you ask him to do. He is going to be our big leader this year.”
Other seniors include forward Wesley Johnson, who is returning from an ACL injury from last season, defenseman Brandon Howsen, forward Peyton Orhn, forward Ryan Akkanen, forward Cole Seeley, forward Bailey Thorson, and forward Gavin Newton.
Juniors include forward Nikolai Rajala, forward Donte Lawson, forward Cam Lantz, defenseman Aaron Elich, and defenseman Cole Finke.
The sophomore class is highlighted by two players who have already verbally committed to Division I programs in defenseman Christian Miller and forward Ben Troumbly. But there are plenty of other talented sophomores to include goaltender Ville Hyttinen, forward Mitchell Vekich, defenseman Brock Trboyevich, defenseman Jace Nyberg, and goaltender Rick Troumbly.
“We have to expect mistakes and they are going to be made, but I am more concerned with how we respond to some of the adversity,” Clafton said. “I think one of the biggest things we need to make sure we concentrate on is mental toughness and just realizing that every day is going to be a step, every day is going is going to be challenging. However, you have to stay with the task at hand and the goal for that particular day, month and season, with the final goal of getting to the state tournament.”
Clafton said Hermantown is the favorite in Section 7A once again this season, and rightfully so because it has earned that distinction. He feels Virginia/Mt. Iron-Buhl also will be tough with Eveleth-Gilbert and Hibbing/Chisholm also in the mix.
“If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best and Hermantown has definitely earned that right,” Clafton said. “Whenever you get into the Iron Range Conference, it doesn’t really matter how high or low somebody is because I think there is so much tradition up here that everybody can beat everybody on any given night.
“I certainly believe in my heart that every game that we play regardless if it is a lower-end opponent or a higher-end opponent, that we can beat them. I would assume that the teams that we are playing think the same, that they can beat us.”
Adam Johnson, Andy Sertich, Garrett Orhn and Bucky Orhn will assist Clafton in the coaching department this season.
“I think this group really enjoys being here and I think they can be a little business-oriented when they need to be and pay attention to what is going on,” Clafton said. “That is a good strong point that we have. It’s our goal as a staff to make sure that these guys have fun and find the happy medium of having fun, being disciplined and at the same time being so mentally focused that we hopefully can be a machine that can get up and go.”