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Woolwich Juvenile squad goes toe-to-toe with AAA teams

Connor Bauman, Tyson Bender, Tyson Bolender, Kyle Bruder, Connor Duench, Aidan Eastwood, Austin Flaherty, Jordan Gamble, Evan Gowing, Bradley Hale, Jayden Hipel, Gregory Huber, Benjamin Lenaers, Garrett Martin, Kelby Martin, Tyler Moser, Ryan Shantz, Mathew Uhrig, Noah Zeller, Coach Gavin White, Asst. Coach Rick Moser, Trainer Benjamin Martin, Asst. Trainer Mike Leanaers, Asst. Trainer Kevin Moser

It was a great year for Woolwich Minor Hockey, as some 600 players on 38 teams gave their all to Canada’s national pastime.

Whether it was in the Ontario Minor Hockey Association (OMHA) playoffs, which saw the Minor Midget A team claim another championship this year, down to the local leagues, which saw four young teams claim the Grand River local league championships, the Wildcats kept up a strong front across all ages and skill-levels.

Not to be overlooked, however, were the young men at the older end of the spectrum, the Juvenile A squad. Showcasing years of training in minor hockey and a strong feeder system within the Woolwich Wildcats, the Juveniles were the top team in the OMHA A division.

“This season was pretty good. The last like five seasons that we’ve had have been pretty successful. We’ve won OMHAs two years out of five, and we’ve been in the finals every year but one,” said Gavin White, head coach for the Wildcats’ eldest rep team.

The team picked through their competitors one-by-one during the playoffs last month, but finally met their match in the finals by the AAA team, Ennismore RYC. This year, the OMHA amalgamated the A, AA and AAA Juvenile divisions, significantly raising the level of challenge for the Wildcats’ A team.

“Yes there was, definitely,” said White of the jump in difficulty. “We noticed when we went to play Ennismore, we didn’t know about this until the playoffs started so it was hard to prepare ourselves for it.”

Nonetheless, the Woolwich boys persevered over the next highest A team nipping at their heels, the Erie North Shore Storm, in the semi-finals of the OMHA playoffs.

“We went to Game 5 against Erie North Shore, which has been a rival of ours for the past probably ten years in juvenile, so it’s always a really tough series. It’s like Toronto and Boston, right?” said White, alluding to the playoff battle that concluded Tuesday night in Boston’s Game-7 victory.

“It’s always really tough and hard hitting, and there’s really few goals. So we ended up going, out of the five games we went to overtime two out of the five. And then Game 5, we won 1-0 so we almost went into overtime, it was pretty close.”

Woolwich clinched the victory, but would have no such close calls against the AAA team from Ennismore.

“They were just one step ahead of us, one second ahead of us. And it kind of got in our heads. That was a hard part getting around that,” says White. The Ennismore team knocked Woolwich down with three straight wins in the OMHA Finals. Their next meeting at the OHF Juvenile Championships in Toronto (April 13) would fall similarly flat for the Wildcats.

Still, with some AAA action under their belt, the team now knows what it needs to do to compete in the big leagues. The juvenile team encompasses three age groups, with the about two-thirds of the team eligible to return next year to try again.

“Now we get to see what we have to do next year to be not only the single A champions of Ontario, but also the AAA champions of Ontario, and kind of bring ourselves to the next level,” said White.

The strength of the older teams is in some ways a reflection of the development of the younger players, and by extension, the strength of the Wildcats program both on and off the ice.

“We had a pretty successful year as far as championships go,” said WMHA president Rob Moyer. In the local leagues four teams, the Midget LL#3, Atom LL#3 and both Bantam LL#1 and LL#3 claimed Grand River local league championship wins. The Major Atom A’s and Minor Midget MD won the Tri-county Championships, while two teams were iced at the OHF’s, the Midget A and Juvenile teams.

However, Moyer points out the success of the program is measured by more than wins and losses, but rather by the impact on the players. The many teams under the Wildcats banner means players can play at their own level no matter their age or experience, while programs like First Shift help to keep the sport accessible to even more people.

“Those players sure love the game, and they play hard, and that’s what makes it at the end of the day all worthwhile,” said Moyer.

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