BY DAVID THACKHAM
FORT MILL — Practice is the perfect time for a new team to jell together, learn about teammates’ tendencies and form bonds on and off the field of play.
Fort Mill’s high school-age ice hockey team had almost no time for practice during their first season playing in the South Carolina Scholastic Hockey Association (SCSHA). Some teammates were just getting to know each other during the first few games.
“At the beginning, everyone was feeling each other out,” said senior Evan Wade.
“We started figuring it out during games, who’s who and what’s what. We definitely got a feel for it throughout the season as individuals and as a team.”
Fort Mill’s team is made up of players from four different Upstate high schools, including Fort Mill, Nation Ford and Clover. SCHSA promotes the framework to host club teams for high school-age ice hockey players in South Carolina. Seven teams throughout the state competed in the 2018-2019 season, which began last October.
The Fort Mill team isn’t affiliated with any of the area high schools, but most of the 14-member roster studies at Fort Mill High. The team played its home games this season at a local rink in Pineville, N.C.
Team coach Ted Reilly said it was too difficult to schedule regular practices because of the rink’s availability and his players’ obligations to other travel sports teams across the region.
Reilly, a Buffalo, New York, native, has coached travel hockey teams for several years. He said he’s enjoyed seeing ice hockey’s growth in the South. He said hockey hotspots like Raleigh (home of the National Hockey League’s Carolina Hurricanes) and Charlotte (home of the Charlotte Checkers, the Hurricanes’ minor-league affiliate) have helped popularize the sport even in an area where football and basketball often reign supreme.
“There are kids with all levels of ability on this team,” Reilly said.
“It’s a lot of fun. Kids getting to know each other as they play with each other, but there’s a familiarity. We have the right spread of talent, the right mix of offensive and defensive, and kids who can score.”
Fort Mill finished its inaugural SCHSA season at an even 6-6 record, just six points off the league leaders Greenville, Columbia Fusion and Wando Warriors, who all ended their seasons in a tie for first place.
Greenville earned the top seed by virtue of a tiebreaker.
The teams will all compete in a state tournament this weekend at the Carolina Ice Palace in North Charleston. Fort Mill plays the Stratford Knights in the first round 8:30 a.m. Saturday. Should the team win that game, a second-round matchup later that day and the eventual championship game on Sunday morning, it will earn the right to compete in the USA Hockey National Championships March 28-April 1 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Joey Hawkins, a senior, said the team has quickly jelled and feels confident of their chances in the playoffs. He’s hoping for a strong turnout at the Ice Palace because the team always gets pumped up in front of an “electric” atmosphere.
Hawkins has played hockey for about 12 years, mostly on travel teams that tour up and down the country. While the majority of his team’s roster is from families that moved to South Carolina from Northern states, he said he hopes hockey’s action can help convert would-be fans in the South.
“I think there’s a lot of momentum,” he said. “An excited crowd makes it so much fun, gets the adrenaline going. I’d love to see more people getting into the sport.”
- South Carolina Scholastic Hockey Association Playoffs
- First round
- Fort Mill vs. Stratford Knights
- Time: 8:30 a.m.
- Where: Carolina Ice Palace in North Charleston