WAUPUN — The last time the Waupun prep boys hockey team won a conference title, none of the players on this year’s squad had even been born yet.
So when the Warriors’ ended a 22-year drought by clinching the Badgerland Conference title with a 5-0 win over Fox Cities co-op last Tuesday, it was reason for pause and reflection.
“It’s pretty crazy,” senior Carter Flegner said. “The kids on our team like Malachi Buchholz, the last time we won conference was when their dads were in high school. That’s a long time.”
Last season, Waupun finished in the middle of the pack with a 5-4-1 conference record — enough of a successful campaign that with losing only second-leading goal scorer Cody Kast to graduation and a bevy of stars ready to come back for more in 2017-18, there was heightened confidence and expectations for this year.
The Warriors have lived up to the hype, posting a 15-4-1 overall record this season and 6-0-1 mark in conference play. Their victory Tuesday coupled with Fond du Lac St. Mary’s Springs’ 3-2 win over the Neenah co-op the same night gave Waupun the outright Badgerland championship, its first league crown since winning the last of three titles in four years in 1996.
“It’s crazy because who would think small-town Waupun would be winning conference against schools that have seven other co-op schools together with like 5,000 kids. We’re competing with 500 kids in our school,” Waupun junior Cameron Beek said, exaggerating a bit but doing so to point out that Neenah and fourth-place Fox Cities’ combined enrollments gives those co-ops an inherent roster advantage.
“It’s crazy to think because we had 40 kids going out for hockey this year. I just think that it’s crazy little Waupun can produce this much talent (compared with) all the other schools.”
The Warriors will try to keep the good times rolling in this week’s conference tournament, which for them begins with tonight’s quarterfinal game against Stevens Point Pacelli (4-15, 0-7 Badgerland) at the Waupun Community Center. The semifinals are Friday and the championship game is Saturday, with all three games being at the Blue Line Family Ice Center in Fond du Lac.
Waupun is blessed this season with upperclassmen who gained valuable experience playing on the varsity in their younger years.
“I think the big thing is we have another year of experience,” Waupun head coach Jason Buchholz said. “We didn’t graduate a whole lot of guys. Pretty much the whole varsity team returned and even the guys that we lost, we already had guys playing varsity minutes here and there that were able to fill in those positions.”
The biggest name to return is senior Colin Holz, who led Waupun in goals (21), assists (19) and points (40) last year and leads the team in all three categories (15, 16, 31) again this year. Also back in a big way is Beek, who was third in goals (16), first in assists (23) and second in points (39) a year ago and is third (10), first (18) and second (28) again this season.
There are plenty of others who had a big hand in 2016-17, and that extra year of experience has shown in games this season for Waupun — which has nine seniors and three juniors — as Buchholz said he’s seen more of their mojo as a result.
“I think these guys are playing with a lot of confidence,” he said. “I think last year they had spurts of playing with confidence; this year they’re able to maintain it more.
“This year, I think a big part, too, (is that) we’ve had some adversity (to learn from), especially in the first period. There have been a lot of games where we were down 1-0 or 2-0, and we’re battling the whole time and coming back to win those games.
“Even if we’re behind, these guys believe we can come back at any point and win, which I don’t think we had a lot last year at parts of the season.”
Buchholz said he can see his players “feeding off one another this season, working hard and trying to get to that next level,” which at times was missing last season, when he said he saw his players “just going through the motions” too many times.
“I think this year they’ve been able to keep their heads on to do what’s needed to get done to win games,” Buchholz said.
“We weren’t really taking everything as serious as we are this year,” Beek added. “This year, we’re taking everything serious. We’re working hard in practice, working hard off the ice and just doing everything in our power to get that conference title, which we did.”
Flegner could tell there was something different about this year’s team as well, because with all the experience, the Warriors have been able to skate with three lines compared with only two reliable lines his freshman and sophomore years.
“I’d say the biggest difference for us is we’ve got a really deep squad this year,” he said. “So it just helps around the third period.”
The Warriors are staying fresh and focused in the third period, whereas in years past, they sometimes ran out of gas due to a lack of depth.
“It helps because in the first and second periods, you really want to put the pressure on the teams, and get their spirits down,” Beek said. “Then in the third period when everyone is getting tired, with three lines it helps because everyone stays fresh.”
Another big — and perhaps the most important — reason Waupun has made the leap from middle of the pack to being a team capable of qualifying for state is that senior Caleb Sauer has seen his saves percentage jump from .900 to .944. He has the sixth-best goals against average (1.44) in the state, according to Wisconsin Prep Hockey.
“He was a lot more motivated to prove that last year wasn’t the way he wanted to play,” Buchholz said. “He wanted to come in and prove to himself and prove to our team, our conference and the state of Wisconsin that he can really play at an elite level, and be up there with the best teams in the state.”
Even though Sauer’s work ethic has stood out to his coach and his teammates, he hasn’t needed to try too hard because the defensemen in front of him do their job well enough that he doesn’t have to put too much pressure on himself.
“It’s all about keeping my game simple,” Sauer said.