AP NEWS

The Virginia puck drops Friday

November 23, 2016

VIRGINIA — Winter is ... well, it’s here. And so is hockey, for that matter.

For the Blue Devils, their hockey season officially begins Friday night as they take the long trek up to Bronco Arena in International Falls. But as to what they expect when they get there, head coach Reed Larson is at a bit of a loss.

“You never really know what to expect from them,” Larson said. “The last couple of years their numbers have been down, but they always compete. They’re your typical Iron Range, blue collar team.”

The Broncos are coming off a 10-14 year, splitting last year’s series against Virginia 0-1-1. They do, however, return seven seniors, and of course they have home ice advantage, playing in one of the oldest and most impressive arenas in the state.

That won’t be lost on Larson’s younger players, who have yet to see the ice in a regular season game as members of the varsity.

“I think the jitters might be for the young guys,” Larson said. “They were a little nervous when we played (in Saturday’s scrimmages) — they said they were nervous, and I knew they were going to be nervous.”

Larson hopes they’ll have shaken the jitters off by the first period. If they do, what they’ve shown over the last weekend is enough to beat International Falls — and many more teams after that, from the sounds of things.

The Blue Devils played Proctor, Greenway and Princeton in a scrimmage jamboree. They’re three teams that, if you play good against them, it’s probably a good thing, considering.

No doubt that’s why Larson said his team is “quite a bit better than people are expecting from the get-go. We have a very experienced senior class with lots of years and games under their belt.

“I think we’re gonna score goals this year,” he added.

Larson also mentioned his juniors and underclassmen as pivotal cogs in his system. Against a similarly senior-stacked team in International Falls, they’ll have to play as upperclassmen as well, in a rivalry game that’s known to get physical in the past.

Everything considered, he sees goals, sure. But he also sees an improved defense. From top to bottom Larson said that his defense this year, as a whole, is the best he’s had in six years as head coach.

Those are players like seniors Bo Zupetz, Connor Croft and Nick Pineo, while Caleb Bialke, Josh Daugherty and Dawson Flatley fit the talented-but-young mold of up-and-coming players.

And the goalies?

“Goaltending has been a really nice surprise this year,” Larson said, “I’m very excited about who we have.”

Currently, that job is held by Taylor Greenwalt, who as a senior has “been around the block for us,” according to Reed. He’ll see some friendly competition with underclassmen Josh Berlin and Cam Kreibich at his heels, too.

Most importantly, Greenwalt and the rest of his senior companions are part of a group that’s special to Larson. Larson first saw this senior group as sixth-graders the year he started coaching at Virginia. It’s the first actual class he’s seen germinate from the lower grades all the way up to varsity, and that holds a special place for him.

Which is why he’s ready to throw that group out against some of Minnesota’s best, starting with a promising International Falls team.

“I’m just looking forward to getting on the ice with this group of kids,” Larson said. “I’ve been excited about this group for a long time.”