CEDAR RAPIDS — Unsuccessful and unstable.
That has been the label the Cedar Rapids high school hockey program has worn for many of its 14 years of existence. It has been one coach after another, players choosing to play for out-of-town teams at other levels of the sport.
And losses. Lot and lots of losses.
Three years ago, the RoughRiders played 28 games in the Iowa High School Hockey League and lost every one. Twenty-seven of the 28 came in regulation. That’s non-competitive.
But Cedar Rapids went into its IHSHL game Wednesday night at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena against unbeaten Waterloo with a 10-3 record. All three losses were by a goal.
Credit the kids in the program. There are 38 of them, representing Cedar Rapids Kennedy, Washington and Prairie High Schools, as well as Linn-Mar, Iowa City High, Iowa City West, Iowa City Liberty, Mount Vernon, Benton Community, Alburnett, Vinton-Shellsburg, Clear Creek-Amana, Solon and Springville.
Credit the coaching staff, too. Tony Paoli is in his third season as head coach, and the RoughRiders have gone from eight wins to 16 to very likely more than 16.
“There are a couple of factors,” said Paoli, a Wisconsin native who played prep hockey. Hockey is a sanctioned varsity sport there, but not in Iowa.
“One, we wanted to build a culture and environment of winning, where there is an expectation of winning,” Paoli said. “You know, we just won our 100th game as a program in 14 years, so we haven’t done a lot of winning in the last 13 years. So we wanted to build that culture of winning and working hard, and the kids bought in.
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“Then we wanted to make sure we had the right kids. Sometimes that’s harder than, say, the USHL team. We just have the local kids here. But we put the right kids in the right spots. Just because you were an all-star or thought you were at one point, you still had to earn your stripes.”
Paoli pointed to a detailed strength-and-conditioning program as important to progress. There are 12 seniors, so experience has been integral.
Ryan Carlson, a Kennedy senior, leads Cedar Rapids with 15 goals and 28 points in 13 games. His forward linemates Ben Pizzimenti (an Iowa City West senior) and Carter Renwick (a Prairie senior) have formed a dynamic number-one line.
But Paoli said the depth of scoring has improved this season, as 13 different players have scored goals and 17 have at least one point. Ethan Snee (a City High senior) and Eric Wisnousky (a Prairie senior) have split goaltending duties to good effect.
“A lot of us have kind of been together for a long time, all the way back to Squirts and Mites. We’ve all kind of stayed as a group,” said senior Josh Nelson (a Clear Creek-Amana senior). “We’ve been holding on together for a long time. We’ve got, what, 12 seniors now, and that’s a bonus. I think that might be the reason we’ve turned it around. Whereas, three years ago, I think we only had two seniors.”
Nelson, Carlson, Renwick and Pizzimenti are the team’s captains.
“Three years ago, we didn’t have Tony. He came back and got a pretty good group of guys, where the majority of us have played together since we were younger,” Renwick said. “Last year was a pretty decent year, where we made state for the first time in awhile. We got used to playing with each other again, didn’t lose a whole lot, kept the main core of our team. This year, we’ve been very senior focused, senior heavy and had guys step up and really lead this team.”
“In years past, the team has been pretty separated,” Pizzimenti said. “You’ve had guys who didn’t like each other, that maybe had a little bit of beef on the team. But we’ve really come together in these past years, and nobody has a problem with anybody on this team.”
Paoli has coached many of his players as youths growing up, so that familiarity has been a bonus. The goal for this team is to qualify for the IHSHL playoffs a second consecutive season and make some noise there.
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The short-term goal is the old coach’s cliche: get better each and every day and take each game as it comes.
“I took this job to help solidify, then maybe we can pass the torch at some point,” Paoli said. “But we at least wanted to build the foundation and grow the program, so kids didn’t have to leave and could stay here and play competitive hockey.”
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