BARABOO — Andy Waldvogel is itching to get to Saturday.
After two-plus weeks of practice, the Baraboo/Portage boys hockey coach is eager to see what his team brings to the ice when they open the 2017-18 season at Onalaska on Saturday afternoon.
“I’m really looking forward to getting the season underway and getting the games underway,” Waldvogel said after Monday’s practice. “I’m just excited to see it unfold. I’m really, really looking forward to Saturday. ... We’ll get to see a real live look at the product that we’ve put together so far.”
The Onalaska matchup brings a unique twist, as the Hilltoppers ended Baraboo/Portage’s season last year. The Thunderbirds went 10-14-2 in 2016-17, opening the playoffs with a 10-0 home win over Sparta before suffering a 3-1 loss at Onalaska in the regional finals.
“Anytime you can open your season with the team that eliminated you from the playoffs the season before, I think that’s motivation enough for the guys,” said Waldvogel, who is in his second season as Baraboo/Portage’s head coach. “I really feel good about where we’re at right now and I feel positive about the compete level and energy level that the guys have brought. ... They’re going to get their payday here come Saturday.”
That’s how the T-Birds try to approach games, as payday for the effort that the team put in during practice.
“It’s right here and now when we win games,” Waldvogel said of practice. “It’s not on gameday. Gameday is meant for execution and to go out with 100 percent confidence. Practice time is when you earn that confidence.”
That confidence is going to be crucial over the course of a long season.
“How we choose to deal with adversity will define our season,” Waldvogel said. “If that’s something we can take on in stride, we’re going to be a successful team and win our share of hockey games. On the flip side of that, if we can’t come together and take on that adversity as a group, and maybe we fold in times of adversity and don’t have the mental toughness that we would like to have in certain moments, that will make things more difficult. It kind of boils down to ‘When things don’t go well, how am I going to respond?’”
The bulk of that responsibility will fall on Gabe D’Asto, Evan Goethel and Jack Macdonald — Baraboo’s trio of senior captains.
“Everybody’s working hard,” Macdonald said of how the early-season practices have gone. “Everybody’s just kind of got their nose to the grindstone, giving it all they’ve got. We’ve got some guys that are trying to earn spots in those top two lines and you can see that out there. They’re bringing it every day.”
Macdonald, an honorable mention All-Badger North Conference forward last season, has an idea about what being a captain means after holding that title last year as well.
“Just getting the most out of every guy on your team,” Macdonald said of what the role of a captain is. “Making everybody around you better. Just bringing a positive attitude every day, encourage everybody and just really try to set an example and get the most out of your guys.”
Macdonald, who scored a team-high 14 goals last season, will be playing on a line with Mike Wech and Gabe Larson this winter.
“I’m playing with a couple good guys right now, so hopefully we’ll generate a lot of offense and get a lot of points,” Macdonald said. “Two pretty hardworking guys, dig pucks out and we play pretty well together.”
Wech was second on the team with 13 goals as a sophomore last season, while junior defenseman Joe Zemanovic is also back after tallying seven goals and 12 assists last year. Senior Giovanni D’Asto is the most experienced goalie on the roster due to the graduation of Nate Heckendorf. Sophomores Dane Hinz and Blake France are also competing in net this season.
The veterans will take on an even bigger role this year after the graduation of a 12-player senior class that included captains Nick Macdonald, who was a second-team all-conference pick, and Aaron Brekke.
“We have the pieces, it’s just a matter of if they can move as one,” said Waldvogel, noting that there are just 21 players on the roster. “We could have a lot of fun and be a very successful team, but it all starts with making sure we’re in it for each other and we’re ready to work for the guy next to us.”
If those things come together, the T-Birds are expecting to compete near the top of the Badger North Conference standings. Baraboo/Portage finished fourth in the Badger North last year, going 4-5-1 in conference play to finish behind Waunakee (8-2), Reedsburg/Wisconsin Dells (7-3), and DeForest (6-4).
“It’s one of those seasons where I look at it and I feel like the Badger North is pretty open,” Waldvogel said. “I feel like we can compete with the better teams that are going to come out of the conference this year. It’ll be a fun season. I feel like there’s going to be a lot of good hockey played in the Badger North this year, and we’ll be a part of that.”