Farmington goalie Gage Overby gathered up the puck after a shot on goal by Eastview. (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE)
Game night for the Farmington boys’ hockey team used to mean driving for up to an hour and sitting at a rink for a couple more watching the JV team before hitting the ice.
Much has changed in the past year.
In addition to getting a new coach, the Tigers also moved from the Missota Conference to the more competitive South Suburban Conference, playing teams much closer to home.
But if there’s been one constant for the team, it’s success.
“We had a successful year last year in the Missota, and [we had] a lot of returners, so I think we felt confident we were going to make a smooth transition,” junior Devin Bernu said.
After posting a 21-3-1 record in the regular season last year, finishing atop the Missota, Farmington has slid into the top half of its new conference. Its overall record is 17-7-1.
The conference shift has been tough for other sports teams at the school — the football team was winless and the boys’ basketball squad is under .500 — but the boys’ hockey team doesn’t seem to have missed a beat.
“We knew coming into this year that we had guys who could play regardless of what team [we’re] playing against, so I think that’s helped us a lot,” coach Greg May said.
The team’s experience level also helped ease May’s transition.
“I was fortunate to come in as a first-year coach with a team, for lack of better words, already in place,” May said. “There were even some line combinations that I already knew had success [and] some special teams combinations that I already knew had success.”
But despite the framework in place, May has made changes to help the team compete against deeper, more skilled teams.
Joining the South Suburban has meant faster, play, more hitting and better goaltending, senior Justin Novak said.
Senior teammate Austin Martinsen said blocking shots and finishing checks are two of many aspects that have taken on a greater importance under May.
The conference switch also meant shorter bus rides of 30 to 35 minutes, down from hourlong commutes. Combined with the addition of a second bus, it means the varsity team spends less time waiting around, fighting off stiffness.
“That kind of helps with our preparation and kind of being ready to play and not just sitting around the whole time,” Martinsen said.
The Tigers’ preparation has taken on a new look as a whole, with May infusing more discipline in the team, working it hard and expecting promptness.
“We practice how we should play every time. Last year we didn’t,’’ Martinsen said. “There were practices where we did practice to the best or our ability [but] sometimes we took the day off. This year, it’s a lot different.”
This year, it’s more of a necessity. Because of that, May has been preaching consistency to his team.
“There’s no nights off in our conference right now, and the other thing that we’ve seen a handful of times this year is that no team is going to give us the game, either. We could jump on them early, and they never think they’re out of it,” May said.
Despite a rough patch in January when the team lost four of five games, the Tigers’ adaptation seems to be going just fine.
“We’ve all played together a long time, and we said we don’t want to throw it away,’’ Bernu said. “We want to do this together. We don’t want to let each other down and not work for each other.
The team, which boasts 21 upperclassmen, will have a chance to do just that as it heads to the section playoffs.
“There’s certain ways that we want to play with the puck and without the puck. There’s certain ways that we want to act on the ice, off the ice,” May said. “If we’re doing those things [and] we’re taking care of our core values, we think that the other stuff’s going to take care of itself.”
Betsy Helfand is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.