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Woodstock Hockey Rebuilt and Reloaded

  • Woodstock hockey offensive coach Jon Chamberlin, right, knocks a puck into play to initiate a practice drill during practice in Woodstock on Wednesday, January 16, 2014. The varsity boys team is currently ranked #2 in the state. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

    Woodstock hockey offensive coach Jon Chamberlin, right, knocks a puck into play to initiate a practice drill during practice in Woodstock on Wednesday, January 16, 2014. The varsity boys team is currently ranked #2 in the state. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Goalkeeper Jason Drebber tries to block a shot during practice in Woodstock on Wednesday, January 16, 2014. The varsity boys team is currently ranked #2 in the state. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

    Goalkeeper Jason Drebber tries to block a shot during practice in Woodstock on Wednesday, January 16, 2014. The varsity boys team is currently ranked #2 in the state. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Woodstock hockey offensive coach Jon Chamberlin, right, knocks a puck into play to initiate a practice drill during practice in Woodstock on Wednesday, January 16, 2014. The varsity boys team is currently ranked #2 in the state. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)
  • Goalkeeper Jason Drebber tries to block a shot during practice in Woodstock on Wednesday, January 16, 2014. The varsity boys team is currently ranked #2 in the state. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

Woodstock — The American settler moved west in search of wide-open spaces. Charlie Hancock prefers his environs a little more congested.

The sixth-year Woodstock High boys hockey coach had the ability — indeed, the need — to confine those spaces last winter. The Wasps’ roster was so small, with 11 skaters and one goaltender at the season’s start and fewer through the campaign, that Hancock frequently held half-ice practices so as not to tire his players out.

The arrival of nine freshmen this winter has brought more benefits than Woodstock might have first imagined. Not only are the Wasps back to full strength for the first time in several winters, but they find themselves in the thick of the Vermont Division II title race entering the second half of the schedule.

No wonder Hancock is grinning from ear to ear.

“It makes it a lot nicer to run a practice that is functional, something that you get something done,” Hancock said on Thursday after the Wasps’ Union Arena workout. “You’re not running them to death. You can really see who is going to be performing and who’s not performing. It makes it easy.”

The Wasps go into tonight’s home date with Burr & Burton at 8 holding a 7-3-1 record at the top of a jam-packed D-II table. Only Stowe (7-2-1) and Mount Mansfield (7-3-0) have higher point ratings in the division; Northfield (6-3-0), Milton (7-4-0), Middlebury (5-4-0) and even Hartford (4-3-2) can’t be discounted as the charge to grab a top-four state tournament slot heats up over the next month.

Woodstock was 9-12-0 last season.

Given its percentage of the roster, the large freshman class was bound to have an effect on Woodstock’s fortunes this season. Nowhere has that been more apparent than in the net; after starting with a whopping five goaltenders in preseason, Hancock has narrowed the field to first-year players Connor Black, Liam VanHerwarde and Jason Drebber entering the homestretch.

Combining with the experienced defense of seniors Nick Donaldson, Ben Orr and Alastair Bones as well as junior Haven Lantz, the Wasps have surrendered just 23 goals through their first 11 contests. Woodstock’s 2.09 team goals-against average is the division’s best.

“You’ve got to start with our goaltenders; Connor, Liam and Drebber have all stepped up phenomenally for us, played wonderful goalie,” co-captain Donaldson said.

Players who received heavy time on last year’s short-handed roster have returned to excel. Juniors Connor McCarthy and Conor Joyce share the team scoring lead at 13 points. Five other Wasps have at least eight points to their credit.

Beyond that, two players who missed all or most of the last two seasons have played key roles. Lantz missed most of his freshman year to appendix surgery and all of last winter to a broken leg, but his healthy return has given the Wasps necessary skill on the blue line.

Senior Dylan Kuhn has also been an unexpected boon. Away from the game for two years, Kuhn has returned to net a team-high eight goals, including Woodstock’s only hat trick of the year in a 5-3 win over St. Johnsbury last Saturday.

“Everybody we throw out there, they’re pretty good,” Hancock said. “(Kuhn) wanted to come out this year, hadn’t played the last previous years. He came out and it was just, wow. He’s a smart player; he knows where to be.

“It’s kind of hard to pick out one individual kid because these kids have all worked hard. Our scoring is pretty even all the way through. We have somebody contributing every night. That’s nice.”

Success and depth have been a welcome change for Donaldson, a four-year varsity skater. In addition to heavy workloads caused by low numbers, the Wasps had found victories hard to come by. In fact, Woodstock has managed a winning record just once in the past five years and hasn’t reached the state semifinals in eight seasons.

“Two years ago, we had, like, two wins the entire season,” he said. “We had no numbers, an incredibly young team, one senior last year. The win-loss has picked up tremendously. It’s nice to win games.”

Hancock expects the end of Woodstock’s regular season schedule to provide a stiff challenge. Barring any weather-related rearrangements, the Wasps will head into states on the heels of a Feb. 5 visit to Stowe, a Feb. 15 trip to Northfield and a senior night date with rival Hartford on Feb. 19.

The encounter with the Canes promises to be tight. The rivals skated to a 2-2 deadlock at Wendell Barwood Arena on Dec. 18 in a contest that was high on drama and surprisingly low in other areas.

“That was a pretty darn good hockey game,” Hancock said. “(Hartford coach Todd Bebeau) agreed with me, too; there was, like, one penalty the whole game. That’s pretty low for us.”

And if such results continue, Woodstock can expect a lot more time spent going north rather than west.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.