'Lucky man' Balkovec and WNS hockey make history with first state berth
Team faces Eau Claire on Thursday
Call it the "Maco Balkovec effect" or maybe something not as glib as that because the Whitefish Bay/Nicolet/Shorewood co-op hockey coach counts himself as a lucky man.
He's the passionate and blunt leader of a "Band of Brothers" who have just qualified for the WIAA State Tournament for the first time in the program's history. They look to take Madison and the Alliant Energy Center in which they play on Thursday, by their nickname, "The Storm."
They got there Saturday with a thrilling, visceral, 4-3 sectional final decision over Waukesha, a team that, as Balkovec noted, had taken the Storm "out behind the woodshed" earlier this season in a 4-0 rout.
This journey reminds Balkovec of a time six years ago in 2007, when he was on a similar perch, and also on top of the hockey world. He had taken the building Homestead squad and advanced it to the state tournament for the time, after a frustrating sectional final loss the year before.
He thought he would just continue there, building, reloading and making endless runs at state.
But reality slapped him in the face just a short time later as declining enrollments in the Mequon-Thiensville School District eliminated his teaching job at Homestead. The man, with a young, growing family, had to scramble.
"I was the low man on the totem pole," he said, "but I was lucky to find a job in a school district that's close by (Bay) and then I got a chance to build again. To get this kind of opportunity again is really extra special. I'm not going to lie to you about it."
And a lucky man like him never lies to his players, especially to the nine-man senior group that is the heart of his team. They are the first four-year group to come through the program with him. He will tell them if they are playing well, and he will tell them when they stink, and in a sense, they have adopted his resilience, his honesty, his tenacity.
Because that's how he built this brotherhood out of a disparate band of hockey players, who had come from different youth programs, come from different high schools, into this brotherhood.
"… As a coach and teacher, you want to be a model yourself," he said. "You want to live your life, the way you'd want your players to. That nothing is ever given to you. That you have to work for everything you get."
One of those seniors, defenseman Thomas Aiken, explains how that works.
"It works, because everyone out here is competitive," he said, "and so we all appreciate what he's trying to do. He's incredibly honest. Some guys occasionally are questioning why is he so picky on the details. Then you look at how all those little details came to a head in this (sectional final) game.
"And then you realize why he coaches the way he does."
Because of that, the attitude has changed.
"The team really does have something special (about it)," Aiken added. "Ever since coach came here, we've embraced it more and more each year, and when we all buy in, you really see it payoff, like it has now."
That payoff included a first-ever North Shore Conference title, a best-ever 22-4-1 overall record and a run of nine wins in their last 10 games, including three tournament contests.
The team takes on state power Eau Claire Memorial in a 6 p.m. quarterfinal game Thursday at the Alliant Center. There they will display another trait that Balkovec has tried to imbue into this team: The need for respect.
"I think I understand people writing us off," Aiken said. "It really is, given our history. Until this year, we have not gotten our due."
And they still didn't when the WIAA sectional seedings came out and despite their record, they only earned a fourth seed. Aiken said that was just fuel for the fire.
"We just believed in what this team could do regardless of what people said. It was just a matter of finding a way to do that. … This season was very pressure-packed. Early this year, we made it our mission to go and prove something to ourselves."
They did with the 3-2 overtime sectional semifinal win over top-seeded Kettle Moraine on Feb. 19 as three seniors Aiken, Andy Krugler and Andy Keith all came up with clutch goals, and they did it again with the sectional final triumph over Waukesha on Saturday as junior goalie Sean Leahy, who had lived in the shadow of others for years, made stop after stop when needed and made senior Nick Sullivan's eventual third period game-winner hold up.
As Aiken indicated, it all reflects the method to Balkoevc's madness.
"Since I've been here, we've had very high expectations," Balkovec said. "I am a very demanding guy, but they bought in. I just asked them to make enough sacrifices to make this a successful program. I challenged them to play with those expectations.
"Because, look at the world. It's easy sometimes not to rise to the occasion (in a given situation). It's a trait relatively few are willing to take up, but that's why there are successful people in the world and why there are unsuccessful people.
"These kids knew what it takes to win and in big games. The leadership has been just incredible."
So has the togetherness.
"It's very special group of guys," said Aiken. "… Looking at us (on the ice and in the locker room, you'd never guess we come from three different schools. We're one group that loves hockey and plays for each other."
And that "groupthink" led to the final moments Saturday, when many of the top seniors were on the ice late in the third period, desperately trying to hold off one last Waukesha charge.
Then it was over and the "Band of Brothers" got to celebrate.
"It really was something," Aiken said. "This was not the first time that we did something that we'd never done before, but this (the state berth) was the one we wanted the most. It's a historic landmark and we want to keep pushing forward.
"… We're looking to do something special."
They, and their lucky coach, already have.
Storming to state
WIAA STATE TOURNAMENT
Thursday through Saturday, Alliant Energy Center in Madison
Wausau West vs. Verona, noon
Wisconsin Rapids vs. Green Bay Notre Dame
Eau Claire Memorial vs. WNS, 6 p.m.
Superior vs. Fond du Lac
FRIDAY SEMIFINALS - 6 p.m.
SATURDAY CHAMPIONSHIP - 2:15 p.m.
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