Mack Keryluk blazes own trail in sparking Verona’s return trip to the WIAA state boys hockey tournament
VERONA — Mack Keryluk is at home on the rink.
The frozen pond near his house was a regular haunt for a young Keryluk and his family.
“I’ve been skating since I was 2 years old,” said Keryluk, a Verona junior. “So, I know I have been wanting to play hockey my whole life.”
Keryluk, a 5-foot-11, 160-pound forward/center, grew up at and around hockey rinks. The 17-year-old has followed in the family hockey footsteps of his father, Ken, who played for the University of Wisconsin, including on the Badgers’ 1981 NCAA championship team; brother Zac, 24, who was with the UW men’s team in 2015-16; sister Steph, 22, a junior playing at St. Lawrence University; and brother Jack, 19, competing in the Eastern Hockey League.
Mack Keryluk — a first-team All-Big Eight Conference selection this season — has developed into the top scorer for Verona, seeded fourth for this week’s WIAA state boys hockey tournament.
The Big Eight champion and sixth-ranked Wildcats (20-5-2), making their second consecutive state appearance, will meet fifth-seeded Eau Claire North (17-9-1) at about 12:15 p.m. Thursday at the Dane County Coliseum.
“It’s, obviously, a great feeling,” Verona coach Joel Marshall said about the Wildcats’ return trip to state. “It’s like that restaurant you go to. It’s that meal you want to go get. You want to go back for it. … We are blessed with talent and fortunate enough to make it. We want to go back every time we get the chance.”
Marshall figured the Wildcats would be solid on defense, led by senior captains Jake Osiecki and Kade Binger, and in net, with sophomore goaltender Kaden Grant. Marshall wasn’t as certain about the Wildcats’ offense, particularly after potent scorers Brockton Baker and Mason McCormick didn’t return.
But Verona has received widespread offensive contributions, led by Keryluk, junior Cale Rufenacht and sophomore Walker Haessig.
After providing two goals and two assists in Verona’s 5-3 sectional victory over Sun Prairie on Saturday, Keryluk has 79 points (40 goals, 39 assists) — including 13 on six goals and seven assists in three postseason games. Keryluk’s point total represents a single-season best for the program, Marshall said.
“That’s a lot of points he’s been putting up,” said Marshall, noting Keryluk is quick to give credit to his teammates. “I’ve never seen anybody quite like that as a junior.”
Osiecki, one of eight finalists for state boys player of the year, said about his teammate: “We had high expectations for him, but he’s exceeded those expectations. He’s been incredible for us. He’s really helped us.”
Keryluk, also a team captain, has been opportunistic on the ice.
“Hockey is really just whatever is given to you, you take advantage of every situation,” he said. “During the games, I see my openings and I take it. Through the season, I’ve been able to produce a lot of points. I just think of it as if I work as hard as I possibly can, then only good can come my way.”
An example of that work was rewarded Saturday, when a passing sequence Keryluk and Rufenacht practice every day during a two-on-one rush resulted in a goal on a one-timer by Rufenacht, who has 19 goals and 30 assists.
“Mack and I have been playing three years now,” said Rufenacht, who also plays football and golf for Verona. “It’s multiple years coming together with the chemistry, and everyone is comfortable with each other. With all our talents and skill sets coming together, it works very well.”
Keryluk said Verona’s fast pace helps its attack.
“When we are going and once we pop in maybe one or two goals, then we start rolling,” Keryluk said. “The floodgates open and everything pours out.”
Marshall expects Verona to have its “hands full” with Eau Claire North. Rufenacht said Verona’s confidence entering Thursday’s game is enhanced by the team’s chemistry and the experience gained at last year’s state tournament.
Keryluk said last year’s state experience gave him lofty expectations this season: He wanted to make it back to state and advance beyond last year’s state semifinal finish. Osiecki, whose father, Mark Osiecki, is associate head coach for the UW men’s hockey team, was of like mind.
“It was great to make it last year,” Jake Osiecki said. “To get back here with a lot of the same guys is an experience I will never forget. We used (last year) as motivation to get further than we did last year. We came up a little short in the semifinals (losing to eventual champion Hudson) and we want to do whatever it takes to get back up there and make it to the final game.”
Osiecki, who started playing when he was 4 years old, said it is special to advance to state with teammates he’s played with since they were young, including Binger and senior forward Drew Dingle.
“We all are great friends,” Osiecki said. “We love playing hockey with each other.”
“It’s a good balance of skill and that character you need to win championships,” said Marshall, who sees parallels between this team and Verona’s 2014 state championship squad.
Verona’s sectional final victory over Sun Prairie, notably the four-goal second period, was one of the Wildcats’ top performances.
But have the Wildcats played their best hockey?
“Not yet, we are saving that for state,” Binger said.