By Jim den Hollander
Teams are just wrapping up the second week of WIAA varsity hockey and the intensity level is ratcheted up with the start of Badger West Conference matches.
All three Sauk County-based teams will face off against a new varsity rival as the Sauk Prairie Eagles play host to the Monroe Cheesemakers and Baraboo/Portage Thunderbirds visit the Oregon Panthers on Thursday night. Following that, the RWD Cheavers will play host the Madison Edgewood Crusaders on Friday night.
Monroe Cheesemakers (1-3, 0-0 Badger West) @ Sauk Prairie Eagles (2-0, 0-0 Badger West)
Expectations are high for the Eagles, coming off a one-loss regular season in 2020-21 and a couple players getting a jump on the season on Team Wisconsin.
So far, the team has lived up to expectations with two wins and a 15-7 edge on the scoreboard so far. The Eagles seem solid at all positions but its calling card in recent seasons has been an explosive offense and the ability to get a goal almost whenever needed.
The Cheesemakers are coming off a successful 16-9-2 record in 2020-21 but have stumbled a bit out of the gate, dropping three of its first four.
These teams have played 10 times since 2013 and all 10 have been won by the Eagles. The most recent meeting was a 6-1 win for the Eagles on Jan. 28, 2020, one of the goals scored by Eagles’ senior Nick Mast.
Baraboo/Portage Thunderbirds (1-1, 0-0 Badger West) @ Oregon Panthers (2-1, 0-0 Badger West)
Thunderbirds evened its record at 1-1 with a 3-2 overtime edge on Tuesday in Sparta and those are the only three goals for the team so far.
The Panthers couldn’t be more opposite, entering the conference opener with a 2-1 record and 22 goals scored so far. Senior Kyle Rohrer who racked up 26 points in 27 games with Team Wisconsin before the WIAA campaign has played a part in 18 of the Panthers’ goals so far and sophomore Andrew Jicha is right behind him with 17.
If the Thunderbirds can dictate a tight defensive pace and take advantage of Oregon mistakes, this game could be interesting, but that will be a tough assignment for the Thunderbirds against this explosive squad.
The Panthers and Thunderbirds have met five times in the past, Oregon holding a 4-0-1 advantage, but none of the current players played a part in any of those games. The most recent meeting was a 3-2 overtime win for the Panthers in Dec. 2016.
Madison Edgewood Crusaders (1-1, 0-0 Badger West) @ RWD Cheavers (2-2, 0-0 Badger West)
The Cheavers dropped its first two games, both by a single goal before turning a corner with a 5-3 decision against the Somerset Spartans on the weekend and a big emotional win, rallying back from three one-goal deficits to grab its first regular season win ever against the Onalaska Hilltoppers, 5-4 in overtime.
The Crusaders dropped its first game to the defending state champion Hudson Raiders and rebounded with a 5-1 win against Chippewa Falls.
Both teams are senior-heavy, and the Crusaders had a handful of players playing for Team Wisconsin.
These teams have met six times before and the Crusaders have won five, including an 8-2 whipping last January, a low point of the season for the Cheavers. That memory will no doubt be the inspiration for the Cheavers who picked a bad night to come up flat. Many of the current team members also remember a game from the previous season that saw fearless RWD squad go toe-to-toe with the Crusaders at LaBahn Arena in the playoffs, despite a heavy underdog tag. Crusaders managed a last-minute goal to squeeze past the Cheavers in that one.
The Cheavers may be the underdog once again, but stellar goaltending has kept them close against some tough opponents and the offense enjoyed a breakout against Onalaska.