By Jim den Hollander
Coach Rick Capener congratulated and said an emotional so long to six inspiring seniors at the Badger Lightning varsity and junior varsity banquet at Monk’s at the Wilderness Thursday (March 9) night.
The half dozen players played crucial roles on the squad dating back to their freshman season and in particular the 2020-21 season as they made up the core of a team that included just two lines, trying to stay 100 percent healthy during the COVID epidemic.
The presentation of senior honors and the team’s Specialty Awards was a highlight on the final meeting of players and parents for the 2022-23 season.
The group, including his youngest daughter, Kayla Capener, now the all-time leading scorer for the Lightning, clearly held a special place for Coach Capener.
“Some of these girls I have been in contact with for 10 years,” said the Coach before presenting senior honors. Capener coached them in youth hockey for several years before they started at their respective high schools.
Capener said the girls were used to winning, attending four state championship tournaments and always performing well.
“There was a lot of hockey, a lot of travel with this group.”
After dinner at Monk’s Capener addressed the team and parents, mentioning each varsity player individually and thanking everyone that helped make the season run smoothly.
Ending the evening was the presentation of six ‘Specialty’ trophies/plaques.
The first presentation was the Sportsmanship Award presented to first year Paige Othmer who made a massive impression on the blue line in her rookie varsity season.
Othmer is not shy about being physical on the ice, but clearly plays clean, Capener pointing out she was the only varsity player to go penalty-free this season.
“She is always smiling,” said the Coach adding Othmer clearly loves the game adding on a couple occasions she apologized for incidental contact to members of the opposition.
Outstanding Defense honors went to Eryn Benson, who has been heavily relied on as a defender since her first days with the team.
A perfectionist when it comes to defense, “Nobody is harder on her than herself,” said Capener when it comes to her play on the ice. Capener described Benson as a “solid blue line player,” and her attention to the defensive side of the game meshed well with some of the younger defenders who like to carry the puck. She was an offensive contributor as well, blessed with a mighty shot from the point.
The Coaches Award was presented to Elizabeth Hagg, another of the promising first-year crop of players.
“This player did everything asked of her this year,” said Capener adding “She wanted a bigger role than she got most of the time but did it with a smile. She listens to everything we say, and she always looks to improve. She asked a lot of questions.”
Capener related a comical story about Hagg who took a rare penalty then returned to the ice and scored her first varsity goal. Capener makes no secret of his quest to eliminate penalties wherever possible so it might not be a surprise when he walked over to congratulate her on the goal she instead apologized for her infraction.
The Hobey Baker Award, presented for Dedication as well as on ice performance went to Mallory Ruland. Another product of the local youth system, Ruland, or more accurately her parents have sacrificed a lot to continue her hockey career as she travels from Elroy every day for practice with the team.
Ruland has been a key player since she started with the team, part of a potent trio (with Kayla Capener and Bella Bowden) during 2020-21 campaign and she has filled whatever position Coach Capener has asked throughout her four-year run.
Coach Capener also announced at the banquet Ruland received all-Badger Conference Honorable Mention recognition.
The Team MVP Award was presented to Kayla Capener who rewrote the team’s scoring record books and was a leader on the ice since her sophomore season.
This season the three-sport athlete scored 19 goals and 48 points to wrap up a four-year career with 58 goals and 150 points in 82 regular season games. Playoff totals add another four goals in five games.
While presenting here the MVP Award, Capener also announced his daughter was a unanimous First Team All-Badger Conference player and Second Team All-State.
The varsity Lightning included a pair of First Year players this year and they made their presence felt immediately on a defense corps that should help the team take another step in its progress next season.
Side by side, they couldn’t be more different, but on the blue line, Paige Othmer, one of the team’s tallest players and Kyran Merrell, the smallest in stature but far from it in talent are both exceptional puck moving defenders that, partnered with the solid goaltending in place, should make the Lightning one of the best defensive teams in the Badger Conference.
Capener said Merrell “was an impact player from the start. She has great hands and is one of the best (and quickest) technical skaters we have seen in some time.”
Merrell contributed two goals and seven helpers and earned her first varsity letter.
Othmer used her size to full advantage keeping the front of the Lightning goal clear of opposition threats and also was a quarterback for the powerplay from her spot on the blue line.
“She skates with the puck with a mission,” said Capener. Othmer collected five goals and nine points in her first season and earned her first varsity letter.
“Both of these players are going to be a force to contend with for the next three years for other teams,” said Capener.
The varsity team included four sophomores and each of them played a key role this past season.
Defender Audrey Hanko was another of the young defenders that make the team’s future look so bright. Capener said quick reactions and a commitment to finishing plays made Hanko look solid on the blue line and an effective poke check brought memories of Carson Blosenski who graduated in 2022.
Hanko collected a goal and three points from her spot on the blue line and received her second varsity letter at the banquet.
Ryleigh Bychinski opted to stay in youth hockey for an extra season and became a fixture as a forward with the Lightning this past season.
In order to find the right fit and chemistry for others, Bychinski was moved around a bit through her first varsity season and Capener said she “handled it well,” describing here as an aggressive, physical player with good speed and a solid 200-foot game, Bychinski picked up three regular season goals and eight points.
Bychinski collected her first varsity letter.
Returning forward Kayla Garbacz had a successful season and like Bychinski she had different linemates over the season.
“Another player we moved around a little, looking for the right fit and handled it well,” said Capener who praised her for her ability to find open areas with and without the puck and remembered a big assist she collected in a big game against Onalaska.
Overall, Garbacz who is also a gifted runner, collected three goals and seven points and collected her second varsity letter.
Reese Olson has been a key player for the Lightning since the first time she put the jersey on. Her aggressive style made her a perfect fit on the first line in her freshman season “and she earned that agan this year,” said Capener.
The downside to the aggressive style of play is an occasional infraction, but Olson countered that as an exceptional penalty killer, turning the time playing short as a positive.
“When she forechecks, her goal is trying to give us an opportunity to score a ‘shorty,’” said Coach Capener.
Olson scored 10 goals and collected 26 points this season, receiving her second varsity letter along with a captain’s pin and a hat trick medal.
The primary job of replacing the six departing seniors will fall to this group of four juniors who will lead the way next season.
First up, Katelyn Allen, described by Capener as “just a workhorse and grinder,” will make the team’s aggressive style live on.
“She thrives on breaking up and disrupting the flow for the other team,” said Capener who also gave her credit for doubling as a defender for the junior varsity squad, commenting that experience will make her more valuable as she could play forward or defense on the team depending on situations in 2023-24.
Allen scored a pair and set up another and was presented with her second varsity letter.
Another player Capener said will be relied on next season is third year forward Madchen Ewig.
Also known as a ‘grinder’ for her tireless play, Capener said she does anything asked on the ice, including a key game in Viroqua where she returned to the crease for the first time in hseveral seasons.
“She played huge in net against Viroqua. There was lots of pressure in the game, and she handled it great.”
Known primarily as a shutdown player against some tough opponents, Ewig picked up an assist along the way and received her third varsity letter.
Karson Nicksic was a mid-season addition as a forward but made a big impression quickly.
Described by the coach as a “fast, strong forward with good hockey sense. I am looking forward to a full season with her next year.”
Nicksic hit the mesh twice and set up a pair, collecting her first varsity letter.
One of the greatest weapons the Lightning has moving forward is the stellar play between the pipes from junior Alyssa Gada.
The team doesn’t have a goalie coach but Gada’s attention to detail has made her one of the best around.
“She is very thorough,” said the Coach., “She replays every goal in her head so she can correct what happened.” She went to the cage for 1,100 minutes (about 18 and a half hours), making her one of the most overworked goaltenders in the state. She faced 586 shots and allowed less than three goals (2.80) per game witha save percentage of .910 that rose to .916 in key conference battles.
Her five shutouts give her seven in her career, second most all time for the Lightning and within reach of the 11 posted by Jamie Dutton. She earned her third varsity letter and with what should be a solid group of defenders she will make it difficult for opposition forwards next season.
Capener gave special notice to his seniors as he always does. This group faced leadership challenges earlier than most, playing big roles on an understaffed team. They leave the club much better than it was when they arrived.
Among the graduating six was Lily McPherson, a defender who gained a ton of confidence in herself and her ability over the past four seasons.
The coach recalled a time a few years prior when McPherson contemplated leaving the sport.
“We had a long talk about it, and I gave her time and distance to think about it,” said Capener. “Fast forward and here we are. I, the staff and the team are glad she continued with us.”
The coach said McPherson stuck out as “a protector of our goalie,” adding she was always a positive influence in the locker room as well.
McPherson collected a goal and assist this season, five goals and 17 points over her career and never sat more than 10-minutes in penalties in a season. She was presented with a fourth varsity letter.
Another of the aggressive forwards was Lani Selje who developed from a first time skater to an accomplished forward during her time with Capener.
“I remember when she started (the game). Her parents were happy if she just practiced and didn’t play in the games. So, every game she would come with her helmet and sit on the bench. One day, she showed up and I asked where her gear was. I never seen anyone so excited, until her parents showed up that is,” Capener said adding they took a lot of pictures that day.
“Lani was always the team protector, a role I think she liked” said Coach Capener. “A physical style player who over her high school career developed a nasty hard shot.
Selje scored three goals this season and eight over her varsity career which wrapped up with 18 points and she also collected her fourth varsity letter.
Even as a first-year player Eryn Benson was noted as a great stay at home defender with a threatening shot in the offensive zone.
This season, Capener said he picked her as a team captain because “Everyone was comfortable talking with her. Always mild mannered and smiling, her plan was always solid and consistent.”
While noted primarily for her defensive expertise, Benson was valuable on the powerplay as she not only held the puck in at the line, but her hard shot created offensive opportunities.
Benson scored a pair of goals this season, giving her nine in her career and 33 points.
When it comes to the excitement a hard nosed physical player blessed with overwhelming breakaway speed can bring to a team, step up Bella Bowden.
“Bella’s most consistent strength was her speed and determination,” said coach Capener. “She reminds me of those cross-country runners you see that just keep running until they drop over. She is the only player I’ve coached that approached hockey the same way.
“As the season went on, she got better about letting us know she needed a break.”
In motorcycle racing and some other sports, the winner or fastest racer from the previous season wears number one so it was fitting that she sported that number, usually identified with goaltenders, for the Lightning.
Her five goals and nine points this season gave her a career total of 31 goals and 45 points.
Before picking up Hobey Baker honors, Mallory Ruland got the the call as a senior from coach Capener.
“All four years, Mallory has been that whatever you need me to do player. That is what made her a captain this year. She also made skating and stickhandling through traffic look effortless,” who excelled as a penalty killer.
Ruland notched 15 goals and 31 points, easily her best offensive season as she played 78 career regular season games, scoring 33 goals and collecting 62 points.
Finally, Capener honored Kayla Capener, before presenting her later as the obvious MVP winner.
“Kayla has been a leader on the ice for several years,” said the coach. “Her ability to fina the open lane for a pass is special. Seeing the game a few steps ahead doesn’t hurt either. She was a captain this year. Coach Blosenski said last year when Kayla is on the ice, she controls the flow of the game and for obvious reasons, I’m going to miss her on the ice next year.”
Before going through the honors and awards, Capener gave a rundown on the team’s performance this past season and announced a few interesting additions for the future. Also Coach Josh Cone presented certificates to the members of the junior varsity squad.
Listed below are some key points.
— The 26 players on the roster this season is the highest number in 15 years. Not bad for a team that had just two lines two seasons prior. As a result of the additions, the lock room was updated with salls added and Capener thanked the Baraboo School District for helping out the purchase of new jerseys for the players at a cost of $17,000.
— Coach Capener said new schedules for varsity and junior varsity teams should be released next month.
— A couple of interesting changes through the off season that should help players stay sharp is shared ice time with the Beaver Dam Golden Beavers, liking beginning in July in Beaver Dam. Capener said the format will likely see teams engaging in separate drills then coming together to scrimmage.
— The team will engage in some team building exercises with a ‘dry course,’ and ‘wet course’ at some point over the off season and said plans are in place for a Jet Boat ride at some point to begin the chemistry/bonding experience for the 2023-24 team.
They entered the 2022-23 season with three goals and achieved two of them, coming within a whisker of the third.
First, the team wanted to finish the season at or better than .500 and reached it with an overall 12-12 performance, the best record since the 2010-11 season.
The missed goal was hosting a playoff game and that is the lone setback for an otherwise amazing season. It will eat at some of the players, primarily seniors. “We know we had it in us,” said the coach.
Winning a playoff game was the final goal and the team accomplished that with the first playoff victory since 2011 in Sun Prairie a few weeks ago. Capener said the team came together for the biggest game in recent history and may have been encouraged by some unfortunate comments by the opposition coach that reached the locker room wall.
In 2017-18, the Lightning posted a 0-18 record with a total of 22 goals. They have improved each season and scored 80 goals in 2022-23.
The team is saying goodbye to some of the best players in team history, but a large contingent (Likely a similar number of players this fall) of young players eager to leave their mark on the program will continue the team’s rise in the years to come.