The game plan to stop Naperville Central last season was simple: contain the high-powered offense of Jack Soneson and Shawn Nelson.
But that was no simple task, and many failed, as the duo finished 1-2 in Metro West scoring.
Soneson tallied 23 goals and 24 assists in the 20-game Metro West regular-season, with 3 power play and 3 game-winning goals. Nelson had 26 goals and 20 assists, with 2 power play, 4 short-handed and 5 game-winning goals.
"Obviously Shawn and Jack are irreplaceable with all of the points each put up last season, but I think the returning players really learned a lot about ourselves and what we can do -- and we're using that experience to help push the younger guys this season," said senior Kurt Oswalt, a three-year varsity who shoots left-handed and plays left defense.
"Last year was a great experience for us; we want to grow on that this year."
So far, so good for the Redhawks.
Naperville Central (24-10-1 overall) is in second-place in the newly-named West Division of the Illinois High School Hockey League (IHSHL), with an 14-4-4 record, 1 point behind league-leading Sandburg (15-2-3).
"We're a young team, but we're really looking forward to facing the top teams in the West Division and throughout the state. We're really working hard for all of the big games in November and December," Oswalt said.
Senior Joe Schick has really stepped up on offense, as has sophomore Scott Dunsire, Oswalt said. Schick has a team-leading 16 goals and 12 assists in 22 league games. Dunsire has 11 goals, 7 assists. Junior Chris Zajac has 13 goals, 6 assists.
"We know that everyone has to step up, and we're learning pretty quickly what it takes to beat teams," said Oswalt, who primarily has teamed on defense with sophomore Eric Flakus, though Flakus suffered a broken wrist in mid-October. Plus, senior defenseman Mike Pope has missed games due to a concussion.
At times, the Redhawks have only had Oswalt and three others on defense.
"Last year was a big year for the entire organization, and I'll remember that season for the rest of my life, for sure," Oswalt said. "In order for the (offense) to do its job this season, I have to do my job. (Head coach) Jeff (Nelson) has been telling us for two years that, if we take care of the defensive zone, the goals will come. So my focus has been to stop (the opposition's) attack, stop the puck however I can, and then let the forwards do their magic."
Oswalt, 17, a Naperville resident, has 2 goals, 5 assists in league play, including a game-winning goal in mid-December.
"I'm not a fancy stickhandler; I don't have that skill. I just like to get in the corners and grind it out, play physically when I can. I just try to get the puck out of our defensive zone as quickly as possible, so the offense can do its job," said Oswalt, who stands 6-foot-2, weighs 170-pounds and models his play after New York Rangers captain Ryan Callahan.
"(Callahan) does the little things, and they are so big -- from blocking a shot to just getting the puck out of the (defensive zone), chipping it off the glass or however need be. The things he does really help the team; I try to do the same things."
Said Coach Nelson: "Kurt is our captain and our voice in the locker room. As a senior, he knows what it takes to compete and go far into the (state) playoffs. Kurt's work ethic and leadership has helped our team stay focused and ready to play every night."
The Redhawks were eliminated last season in the quarterfinals of the state tournament, ultimately losing 3-2 to New Trier Green.
Oswalt's junior season was better than his sophomore year, and he wants to use both of those runs to make a solid statement in Illinois hockey as a senior.
"Sophomore year, we didn't play up to our full potential, so this year I'm really trying to push and motivate the team so we can accomplish what I know we can achieve," he said.
The Redhawks feature a new Nelson and Soneson this season: younger brothers Troy Nelson and Darren Soneson -- a sophomore and junior, respectively. Nelson has 9 goals, 14 assists in 22 league games played, including 2 power-play and 2 game-winning goals.
"All four years have been incredible; I have really enjoyed my time at Naperville Central," Oswalt said. "I really want to end my career on a good note; that means (to) win the state championship. So I'm playing every shift as if it was my last. I don't want to end my career on a bad note."
Oswalt was a Metro West All-Star last season, and has been a three-time All-Academic Team member in Metro West. He is Indiana University-bound next year.
"My parents have always told me that academics come first, so I always get my homework done first," Oswalt said.
Oswalt said physics might be his easiest class this semester, while AP calculus is his most challenging. He is taking two honors classes this semester.
"I think no one really expects anything out of us because everyone knows that Jack and Shawn are gone," Oswalt said. "I'm sure many teams think all of our offensive firepower is gone, combined with the fact many of our forwards this season are young, so we're all working so hard to prove everyone wrong -- and that we will be contenders again."
Naperville North senior Sean McDonnell leads the West Division in scoring (25 goals, 12 assists in 21 games played). Teammate Paul Mascitti, also a senior forward, is second in the West Division with 21 goals, 15 assists in 22 games played, including 5 game-winning goals ... Sandburg senior forward David Christel leads the West with 6 game-winning goals … Battle for supremacy in the North Central Division is a five-team battle, with only 6 points separating them. The co-op Maine Township leads the pack (19-3-3, 41 points), followed by Deerfield (18-1-4, 40). The co-op BG/H/W Stampede (19-1-1, 39), comprised of players from Buffalo Grove, Hersey and Wheeling, is in third-place, followed by Highland Park (18-4-2, 38) and Crystal Lake South (17-4-1, 35). The fight for the scoring title in the North Central Division is a two-person battle with Jake Bigos, a senior at Crystal Lake South, boasting 39 goals, 33 assists in 21 games played. Deerfield junior Mike Wiggemansen has 41 goals, 30 assists in 23 games ... New Trier Green (14-0-1) is leading the Scholastic League, followed by Glenbrook North (11-3-1) and Loyola Gold (10-2-2) … St. Viator has been struggling so far in the Scholastic League (1-15-2), and the Lions went 1-2 in the annual Chicago Blackhawk Charities Holiday Hockey Classic, held in late-December. St. Viator opened tournament play with a 4-1 over co-op Glenbard, but then lost 4-2 to Hinsdale Central and 4-2 to Waubonsie Valley …Lyons Township (13-1-1) leads the Suburban Division. Nick Wink (Lyons) leads the league in scoring (17 goals, 19 assists in 15 games played) … New Trier leads Metro Girls, but the Trevians will face stiff competition for the league title from Lake Forest, Upper Fox Valley, Loyola, Barrington and the Latin School of Chicago.