Standing in front of the goal, Corey Benjoya is in his comfort zone.
He's the Stevenson goalie in his fourth varsity season, anchoring the Patriots who look as though skating next March for the state championship at the United Center isn't just a hope or dream, but rather, a true, legitimate chance.
"Benjoya is rock solid in net," said Bob Melton, coach of defending state champion New Trier Green. "He is a big goalie, but also able to get from post to post. He is capable of shutting down the state's best offensive teams."
That includes Melton's Trevians, as well as Loyola Gold, Glenbrook North and, oh, about five others with a strong chance of skating for state at the UC.
Stevenson, though, is leading the pack -- the No. 1-ranked team. The Patriots are 11-3-2 overall, with their wins including those over Loyola Gold, Prairie Ridge and Benet Academy.
"We had a good season last year, so this year should be even better," said Benjoya, who led the Patriots to an upset of New Trier Green last season in the semifinals of the Scholastic Hockey League playoffs and, ultimately, a second-place, falling in the best-of-three finals to Glenbrook North. "I do whatever helps. My job is to keep our opponent to two goals or less. If I do that, we should win."
Benjoya, 17, who lives in Buffalo Grove, is undecided on his college for next fall, though leaning toward Indiana or Missouri. He also is one of five certified referees playing for the Patriots.
"Benjoya brings a lot to the table," said Stevenson forward Jared Projansky, who also is a referee when not scoring seemingly at will for the Patriots. "Every time we step on the ice, he gives us an opportunity to win. He can take over games like he did in one of the New Trier (Green) games last year."
Benjoya sports the assistant captain's A on his jersey, as voted by his teammates.
"They know how important he is to the team and he certainly has earned his teammate's respect," Stevenson coach Jim Wood said. "They rally around him."
Benjoya, though, has not had a smooth skate to ice stardom. He has stuttered since he was 3 and has had therapy for years to improve his speech.
"This (stuttering) is obviously my most challenging issue," he said. "You just live with what you have and make the best of it."
Still, he yells a lot out on the ice, rarely stuttering, he said.
"Working on my talking, and working on my moves on the ice are a lot like," Benjoya said. "I have to work hard at each to get better, to improve."
Is it frustrating?
"A little, but I leave it behind me," he said. "I don't let my (stuttering) bother me when I'm on the ice."
The Patriots went 29-22-5 last season, the fewest wins by a Stevenson team since 2008-09. But optimism this season is strong thanks to Benjoya and Projansky, among others. Projansky, a senior right wing in his second varsity season, netted 54 goals and 39 assists last season. His 54 goals and 93 points were each second-most in school history.
Projansky is second on the team in scoring through the team's first 16 games. He has 10 goals, 15 assists. Michael Trapp leads the team with 20 goals, 10 assists.
"The team is looking pretty good this year," Projansky said. "Obviously our main goal is a state championship, and anything short will be a disappointment."
Projansky skates on Stevenson's top line, along with center Trapp and left wing Ryan Wiley, though Trevor Patten has replaced Wiley, recovering from a broken wrist.
"That line really had a lot of success at the end of last season," Wood said.
Stevenson's offensive firepower also includes Greg Anast, Sam Spector and Cole Salazar, among others.
The defense features one senior, a junior and four sophomores, and is led by newcomer Richard Chen and returnee Evan Baker.
"I think we'll be competitive in every game, though I don't think we'll be blowing anyone out," Wood said. "But we should be in every game. This is a very talented team."
But not the best Stevenson team Wood has ever coached … at least not yet.
"I think I've had better teams, but this team has as much potential as any team I've ever had," he said. "There's no limit to where this team could go."