A mix of veterans and promising newcomers is raising hopes that the Antigo Red Robins hockey team can return to contender status in the Great Northern Conference.

Coming off a 4-12 COVID-shortened campaign, the Robins are back to a full schedule of non-conference opponents, while returning six of their top seven leading scorers.

It all began with captains’ practices, and then two-a-days last week. Preparation will cap with the season opener tonight at Chequamegon-Phillips-Butternut.

“Attendance has been good and the team has been working hard,” head coach Matt Borneman said. “Large group of freshman have been catching on fast thanks to the leadership during captain’s practices. With the number of players on our team, we need young guys to step in early. Having a veteran group is very crucial.”

It starts with the senior class, seven strong, including the team’s leading scorer in Garrett Husnick. Husnick tallied 25 points a season ago, including a team-high 15 goals. He did suffer a significant leg injury during the soccer season, but has recovered well and is pointing towards the Thanksgiving Holiday Tournament in Somerset for a potential return to the ice.

Should that come to fruition, the Robins will catch a break with him missing only Tuesday’s scrimmage at Northland Pines and Friday’s opener.

“He should be able to play sometime after Thanksgiving,” Borneman said. “With injuries we just have to look to the team for the next man-up mentality.”

Defenseman Trevin Walbeck, who was moved to the blue line late last year and excelled, brings his playmaking abilities back to the ice. He was the team’s leader in assists.

Joe Volpentesta is a smooth-skating forward who tallied six goals, while Calvin Jansen, a talented, big-bodied forward, will likely also see time on defense.

Tony Kanda will be a key contributor at forward, while speedy defenseman Mason Berg is also back, but will miss some time early in the season.

Goaltender Aaron Converse, who started 13 games a season ago, rounds out the senior group. Converse posted an .870 save percentage and a 4.48 goals against average, but saw a large number of shots, turning in several memorable performances, most notably 36 saves in a double overtime playoff loss to Mosinee.

It’s a class that has seen some success, including several State appearances as youth. But elite status has evaded them thus far at the varsity level.

“This group has had a trying three years,” Borneman explained. “Always on competitive and hard-working teams, but never able to turn the corner down contender road. They are hungry and ready to make this season special.”

Converse is joined on the roster by another capable netminder in sophomore Nolan Bunnell, who was 1-1 in a pair of starts, with a save percentage of .835.

It appears they will both see time, at least to start.

“We are in a unique position with two talented goalies,” Borneman noted. “We will start the season with a 50-50 split and see how things go from there.”

Not only is the senior group talented and experienced, Antigo brings back a pair of junior honorable mention All-Conference performers in Paden Michalik and Landon Nelson.

Michalik was second on the team in scoring, posting 13 goals and seven assists. He brings a physical toughness and hard shot to every game.

Nelson is a dependable defenseman, who put up 10 points last season, often tasked with guarding the oppositions’ best player.

Michalik will be a front line forward, but will also drop back to defense.

It’s a position at which the Robins were shorthanded a year ago, often skating just three defenseman. This season, outside of Walbeck and Nelson, it’s looks to be a bit of defense by committee.

“Likely Trev and Nelly will lead the way,” Borneman explained. “We will fill in the remaining needs by a committee of Michalik, Husnick, Jansen and Berg.”

At forward, Husnick, Michalik, Volpentesta, Jansen and Kanda provide a formidable group and will be joined by a pair of promising freshmen in Owen Dickman and Eli Kassler.

The pair lead a nice-size freshman contingent, with more contributors possible moving ahead, notably forwards Ian Brittenham and Jack Siegman, along with defenseman Trenton Walbeck.

“Dickman and Kassler are the furthest along and will see regular varsity time,” Borneman said. “As things move along we may see Brittenham, Siegman and Walbeck fill in some role needs.”

While the pieces are potentially in place, it will still be an uphill climb in what is proving to be one of the toughest hockey conferences in the state, the GNC.

Northland Pines, Mosinee and Rhinelander tied for the conference title, while Lakeland knocked off both Mosinee and Rhinelander in the playoffs, on their way to the State Tournament.

Mosinee did lose their All-State goaltender, but brings nearly everyone else back, establishing themselves as perhaps the favorite, but there’s no reason to think the conference won’t be every bit as competitive.

“Many teams are in the mix, it should be a fun conference to follow and likely will be decided during the tourney at the end,” Borneman said.

The full non-conference schedule should help the team as it preps for the grind of league play and the postseason.

In addition to the tough Somerset tourney, the annual home tournament returns, featuring Beloit Memorial, Middleton and D.C. Everest. A weekend road trip to Hayward and Baldwin-Woodville is also on the slate, along with perennially strong opponents in Marshfield, Waupun and West Salem.

It’s a formula to help gauge the Division Two competition in the team’s way to make a run come season’s end.

“Our goals are to be in the mix for the GNC title and playing our best hockey in February,” Borneman added.

Tonight’s season opener will be played at the Park Falls Recreation Arena, beginning at 5 p.m.

Recommended for you