Ice Bears primed for postseason push
By Jordon Lawrenz
GREEN BAY – With a 21-3 record and a first-round bye in the postseason, the Bay Area Ice Bears are one of the most feared high school girls’ hockey teams in the state.
The Ice Bears won the Eastern Shores Conference title this season and are currently ranked No. 3 in the state by Wisconsin Prep Hockey.
Also referred to as the De Pere Co-op, coach Joe Gerarden’s squad pulls players from De Pere, Green Bay and Ashwaubenon.
On Feb. 9, the Ice Bears’ regular season concluded with a 5-0 win over Central Wisconsin Storm. One of the Ice Bears’ three losses came to the Storm earlier in the season, so that victory meant a little extra even though the Ice Bears’ first-round bye was already locked up.
Gerarden’s squad won’t be in action again until Feb. 21, a rare 12-day layoff. The Ice Bears will play either Brookfield Central Co-op or Xavier Co-op. Brookfield Central hosts Xavier on Feb. 17.
Gerarden has a plan in place to deal with the lengthy break between games,
“We will keep doing regular scheduled on-ice practices and off-ice workouts. Mix some things up during those times with some game play,” Gerarden said. “Our practice times are pretty late, so sometimes I will end early or give them a night off. Our parents also organize some team meals and things like that help with the change of pace.”
While the Ice Bears may be a very young team, they don’t play like one.
Claire Bradford is the team captain and one of the few seniors on the squad.
“I feel that our biggest strength is our depth,” Bradford said. “We run three lines and six D, so against teams who run two lines we definitely have the advantage in the third period. Being able to have a full team of good players, many who play hockey outside of high school, is something that has helped us be successful.”
A common theme with the Ice Bears is their culture. Even though this is a team with players from different high schools, Gerarden’s motto has left a lasting impact.
“Our culture is we (is greater than) me.”
This statement was echoed by Bradford.
“We need everyone to play hard for us to win. Our team’s motto is we [is greater than] me, meaning we have to play for each other and not for ourselves,” Bradford said. “Being selfish or a bad teammate won’t win games or help us be successful.”
That said, it’s still an interesting dynamic combining multiple schools to create one program.
“Many high school sports aren’t a co-op, so the relationship we have with each other is special,” Bradford said. “Since we don’t go to the same school, coming to the rink is exciting because it’s the only time we get to see each other.”
“Absolutely it is hard.” said Gerarden when asked about the girls being from different schools. “They all have different schedules and other activities. They are able to bond during practice, team workouts and meals. Our road trips are additional times we can bond on the bus.”
One of the other seniors on the Ice Bears is Anna Byczek. Byczek is a goalie and this is her first year on the team. While it’s not her first year playing hockey, she wasn’t a part of the squad last year that lost in a sectional final.
Byczek spoke highly about the state of this team.
“We have a very strong, but young team,” she said. “The underclassmen this year are very talented hockey players and willing to put in the work. Being that we have very few seniors this year, I feel that a few sophomores have stepped up to fill in gaps. These younger girls are the future of our team and already play a major role in our team’s success.”
Even with the youth, the Ice Bears have the experience and team chemistry to win the state title.
“A large number of these girls have been playing together since 10U, a majority of them are sophomores so they blend well with the upper- and [under]-classmen,” Gerarden said. “This group has been very coachable, asking questions, trying new things and not afraid to make mistakes.”
The Bay Area Ice Bears were upset in a sectional final last season, falling one game short of a state appearance. This year, the state tournament will be held on March 2 and 4 at Bob Suter’s Capitol Ice Arena in Middleton.
“There is a core of girls that talks about last year’s loss still having a ‘sting’ to it,” Gerarden said. “So now we know how it feels to be so close and want it even more. Focus on taking one game at a time and not looking too far ahead and managing our emotions will help.”
The loss still sticks with Bradford.
“I have thought about that feeling of being so close to our goal of winning state and having it taken away,” Bradford said. “Every time we play Fox Cities, I think about that game and how I never want that to happen again.”
The Ice Bears were 3-1 in their four meetings against the Fox Cities Stars this season, outscoring them 8-3. Their lone loss to the Stars was a 1-0 game, with that goal being given up with two of the Ice Bears’ players in the penalty box.
While Byczek wasn’t a part of the team last season, she knows this team is motivated,
“I feel hearing about last year’s season and the loss in sectionals gives all of us motivation to make it farther than last year.” Byczek said. “I too have been a part of teams in the past that have gotten very close to a state title but fell short, so I know how they feel. I believe we all have a lot of motivation and drive going into playoffs this year.”
Gerarden knows what it will take for his team to win it all.
“It will take everyone playing their role and picking up each other when a mistake happens,” Gerarden said. “Our goaltending and strong defense has been very consistent and that can take us a long way. Scoring goals, high energy and using our team speed are key.”
Throughout their 24 regular-season games, the Ice Bears scored an average of 4.12 goals per game and only allowed an average of 0.79.
Byczek has been sensational in net, which is arguably the toughest position on the ice.
“Being a goalie is an extremely nerve-wracking position at times,” she said. “I have played the goaltender position for years and I am confident in my abilities, along with help from my defensemen.”
With the postseason upon them, Bradford has two moments that stand out as her favorite from the season.
“First is winning conference,” Bradford said. “Being able to celebrate with my team is the best feeling ever. My second favorite moment was playing against the Metro Lynx. That game felt different. Everyone was playing for one another and I believe that was the turning point in our season where everyone realized that to win in big games we can’t just rely on one person.”
If the Ice Bears can win their sectional semifinal game at the Cornerstone Community Center on Feb. 21, it will advance to the sectional final. That game will be played at the Fond du Lac Blue Line Ice Center on Feb. 25 at noon with the winner advancing to state.