Local representatives show strong leadership in Kenosha Unified’s co-op program

By Jason Arndt

With 11 of 19 players on the Kenosha Thunder roster coming from either Westosha Central or Wilmot Union high school, the co-op hockey program has a strong area presence, including a handful of key returners from last season.

The Thunder, a Kenosha Unified School District co-op team, added Wilmot Union students to the team five years ago and Westosha Central entered the picture the following season.

Last season, the Thunder finished 3-3-1 in the Classic Eight Conference and 11-12-1 overall, but pulled off an improbable WIAA playoff run.

Joseph La Forge

The improbable playoff run included a regional title, which came in a stunning upset in Janesville, where the No. 7 seeded Thunder edged No. 2 Janesville 7-3 and advanced to the sectional semifinal against Beloit Memorial.

According to Thunder coach J.R. Litkey, Westosha Central junior Joseph Laforge played a formidable role in the win at Janesville.

“LaForge was in more of a backup role last season until towards the end of the season,” he said. “He stepped up when Tanner Arnold got sick and played unreal. You could really see the strides he had made in the games. He helped us upset No. 2 seeded Janesville last year.”

Without Arnold, who graduated, Litkey expects to see LaForge play a larger role this season, and based on early observations, the junior goaltender has shown progress.

“He is back this year as a junior and looking better than ever,” Litkey said.

LaForge compiled an .878 save percentage as a sophomore.

Backing up LaForge is another area representative, Wilmot senior Connor Stickles, who makes the goalie position an area of strength for the Thunder.

“Our goaltending is going to be one of the strong parts of our team this year,” Litkey said. “Connor is a great kid and a hard worker and he has showed great strides from the first season he put on a Thunder sweater.”

Erickson leads Thunder attack
Although the Thunder lost Westosha Central graduate Kyle Kuhfuss, another representative from the school will slide into a leading role this season, senior defender Chase Erickson.

Erickson, who notched 12 points a year ago, will serve as a team captain entering the 2017-18 campaign.

“Chase is our team captain this year and will lead the defense,” Litkey said. “He has been a four-year varsity guy with us, and again, looking back on when he was freshman until now, and the improvements he has made are unreal.”

Erickson will likely play on power play and penalty kill lines, and could contribute on offense, Litkey said.

Along with Erickson, there are three Wilmot representatives, sophomore Evan Hahn, senior Matt Jastrab and Liam McAloon.

Stoller touts speed
Meanwhile, on offense, Wilmot senior Christian Stoller has shown improvement from last year, when he compiled 12 points to tie Erickson.

Stoller, according to Litkey, exhibits strong puck handling skills and demonstrates a strong work ethic.

“This season it looks like he dedicated himself to working on his speed and shot,” he said. “The coaches are looking at him to be a team leader, not only on the ice, but off as well.”

Supporting Stoller on offense, Litkey looks to Westosha Central’s Cole Hoffman and Niles O’Brien of Wilmot, who are both seniors this season.

According to Litkey, the Hoffman and O’Brien duo could make a significant contribution this season, including more speed on the offensive transition.

“(Cole) has been playing junior varsity the last few seasons, and this off season, he put in the work on and off the ice and has earned a varsity spot,” Litkey said. “He will also be getting lots of power play and penalty killing ice time.”

Like Hoffman, O’Brien has dedicated himself to becoming a better player.

“O’Brien is another player that is in the same boat as Cole Hoffman, he has seen mostly junior varsity ice,” Litkey said. “We look for him to add some speed and grit to the lineup.”

Seniors Augie Horak, who comes from Wilmot, and Westosha Central’s Trent Kmiec could also see ice time in 2017-18.

Considering the Thunder lost key leaders from last year, including Nicholas Elsen, Wilmot’s Cody Faber, Max Maegaard and Jackson Jones, more ice time for area representatives is inevitable.

Competitive conference
The Classic Eight Conference, where the Kenosha Thunder placed fifth, features a tightly contested battle for the top spot in the league.

Teams come from Arrowhead, Greendale, Kettle Moraine, Marquette University High School, University High School and a Waukesha co-op program known as the Wings.

Last year, Arrowhead and Waukesha won a share of the conference title at 6-1.

Early results
The Thunder opened its season in Sheboygan, where the team played in the Kyle J. Neurohr Memorial Tournament, held the weekend of Nov. 24.

Kenosha edged Stevens Point Pacelli 2-1, courtesy of 37 saves from LaForge on Nov. 24. Cole Powers and Trevor Heide scored goals for the Thunder.

Kenosha, however, concluded play with back-to-back shutout losses. Sheboygan defeated the Thunder 4-0 on Nov. 25 and Ashwaubenon came away with a 3-0 win Nov. 26.


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