Eagle-Vail: Defina wins Huskies’ Coach of the Year
EAGLE-VAIL ” There are high expectations and then there is Battle Mountain hockey.
The Huskies started playing high school hockey during the 2001-02 season, and the expectation has been state title or bust ever since.
You can have a phenomenal season, but one loss in the postseason, and the year is perceived wrongly as a failure.
Welcome to Battle Mountain head hockey coach Gary Defina’s world. Defina and Huskies hockey had a sensational 20-3 season in 2007-08, including a stunning 18-game winning streak which ended with a heart-breaking 3-2 loss to Regis in the state-title game down in Colorado Springs at the World Arena.
The good news is that Battle Mountain volleyball coach Brian Doyon has the proper perspective on things.
He named Defina the school’s Coach of the Year Tuesday, passing on the award he earned at the end of the 2006-07 school year.
“It was a surprise, yeah,” Defina said of the meeting where the previous Coach of the Year winner names his successor. “There’s an amazing group of coaches at Battle Mountain right now ” Dave Cope with his two teams (boys and girls soccer), Cassie Desmone (boys and girls golf), Rob Parish (cross country and track) and Simon (Marsh) and his skiers.”
As Defina said, there are a bunch of good coaches with successful teams in Eagle Vail, so even an 18-game winning streak, a conference title and a run to the state finals didn’t make it an easy decision for Doyon.
Cope, who won the award in 2003-04, had another spectacular year with his boys and girls soccer teams, winning 4A Slope titles for the second consecutive year. Doyon himself had a great year, leading back the spikers to the state tournament a year after losing essentially four Division I players to graduation. And then there’s Parish who guided Battle Mountain boys cross country to a second-consecutive state title in the fall and the boys track team to its first regional title since 1997 last weekend.
“I expected Parish to get it,” Defina said. “I’m honored to get it considering all the great coaches at this school.”
Parish graciously gave Defina his due.
“Congratulations. He really deserves it.” Parish said.
What made Defina stand apart in Doyon’s mind was the adversity the hockey team suffered before the season began. Battle Mountain started the season without one of its top goalies and four of its six defensemen because of disciplinary issues.
Then sophomore blueliner Connor Tedstrom broke his wrist in a preseason tournament and Jonny Stevens, Defina’s best defenseman, had to run in a national cross country race in late November.
Creative juggling became a necessity.
“If you can’t win when you have all the talent in the world, you’re not a good coach,” said Doyon who won the award last year for guiding Battle Mountain volleyball to a state title. “When things go down and you can make the other players around you better and be successful, that’s good coaching, and that’s what Gary did.”
With a makeshift lineup, Battle Mountain started 2-2 with two losses to Summit, during which what was left of Huskies’ defense gave up 12 goals. And then things started to click in a big way.
Starting with a 5-4 win at rival Kent Denver on Dec. 14, Battle Mountain ripped off 18 wins in a row, allowing a miserly 22 goals in those contests.
“We did have some stuff before the season happen and it carried into the season,” Defina said. “Our only two losses (during the regular season) came in those first two weeks. It gave our kids a chance to step up into a bigger role. I think the kids (who were suspended) realized they hurt the team and made good decisions the rest of the season.”
“How many people, even the kids on the team, were writing them off once they lost those guys?” Cope said. “Whatever those guys (Defina and assistant coaches Brian Deem and Tony Karr) did behind closed doors was amazing. Those kids clearly moved beyond that and toward the championship game. If it weren’t for an unlucky bounce, they would have won the state championship.”
Cope brings up assistants Deem and Karr, and Defina was quick to credit the two in sharing in the award.
Deem grew up playing defense and helped the staff stress the importance of playing in one’s own zone. Battle Mountain hockey, best known for its offensive pyrotechnics, became the top defensive squad in the state.
Karr worked with goalie Kalen Burnett, who found himself in the starting role after his predecessor’s indiscretions off the ice, and did a masterful job with the junior. Burnett ended up recording Battle Mountain’s first shutout at the Frozen Four in February, blanking Ralston Valley, 2-0, in the state semifinals.
Karr also instituted a dryland program, to which the team somewhat begrudgingly subscribed. That paid dividends as Battle Mountain, usually considered more of a finesse team, was able to go toe-to-toe with the biggest teams in the state.
“They were tremendous,” Defina said. “We are a coaching staff. This is not something you can do alone.”
“All three of the coaches love what they’re doing and put a lot of time into it,” Stevens said. “All three of their wives would give them a hard time about how much time they put in. Their families put their lives into the team and that’s something we all appreciated. It made a big difference.”
Defina inherited a program accustomed to success. In the first four years of Huskies hockey, Battle Mountain lost just seven games. In his first year with pretty much a new cast of characters, the Huskies made the Frozen Four again in 2006.
After a disappointing first-round exit ” the only time the team hasn’t made the state semifinals ” in 2007, Battle Mountain regained a lot of its swagger this winter.
The Huskies tore through the Peak Conference with a 12-0 record for the program’s first league title under the current high-school hockey alignment.
But the postseason is how Battle Mountain hockey is judged.
“Gary has done a phenomenal job with that group. That’s a team that has a lot of high expectations throughout the valley,” Parish said. “They’ve always been successful in all different forms. The expectations have been high and he’s been able to work with the culture of the team and make it very much a winning culture.”
That showed in the first two rounds of the state playoffs on home ice at Dobson Arena. Battle Mountain edged Chatfield, 2-1, in the opener and then the next night scored twice in the final 2:47 of regulation to upend Summit by the same score.
“Fantastic job,” Cope said. “I thought the games at Dobson were some of the best sporting events I’ve attended. The key to Gary’s coaching was that he got the most from the kids who believed. I think of Kalen Burnett, Charlie Tedstrom and some of the kids I’ve coached (in soccer). They’re great kids and they just needed a platform to perform. When they were given that in hockey, they did.”
“The Summit game was the one I remember,” Doyon said. “Sometimes, things don’t go your way, but the kids started getting the shots. They weren’t going in at first, but they were doing the right thing. They believed in the system, worked hard and it paid off. I thought that was a perfect example of building off adversity.”
Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 748-2934 or email@example.com.
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