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Junior Hockey: Willmar WarHawks ready for a breakout

With nine returning players and a new head coach, Willmar hopes to make a deep run in the Fraser Cup playoffs in '22-'23

Willmar WarHawks first-year head coach Connor White, middle, addresses his players during practice on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022 at the Willmar Civic Center.
Willmar WarHawks first-year head coach Connor White, middle, addresses his players during practice on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022 at the Willmar Civic Center.
Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
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WILLMAR — The Willmar WarHawks have sported a winning record in each of the last two seasons.

Pulling that feat off a third year in a row isn’t quite good enough for the 2022-23 NA3HL junior hockey season. Willmar is hoping to break through the glass ceiling and make a deep postseason run after getting knocked out in the first round of the Fraser Cup playoffs last season.

“We want to build off the success we’ve had the last couple years and get over the hump that we’ve been stuck at come playoff time,” said first year head coach Connor White. “Our expectations are extremely high and the boys know that coming in.”

The WarHawks open the regular season at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Armadillo Deck Sports Arena in Sauk Rapids against the defending West Division champion Granite City Lumberjacks.

The Lumberjacks made the Fraser Cup championship, losing 4-0 to the Rochester Grizzlies.

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“Granite City’s always good; they’re hard to play against,” said Michael Sweetland. The forward from Stillwater was named Willmar’s captain.

Sweetland added, “They’re fast, they’re physical. I expect that from them this year. We just have to go out there on Saturday and give it to ‘em. Be just as physical as they are and just as fast as them. It should be a good game on Saturday.”

This is White’s first head-coaching experience after serving as an assistant coach under Kirk Olimb last season. Olimb left the WarHawks to become the head coach at Division III Concordia-Moorhead.

White said he doesn’t plan on changing much systematically after Willmar went 32-14-1 in 2021-22. Instead, he wants to see an increase in intensity.

“I want to make sure the intensity is up this year and the dedication to winning hockey games and ultimately developing, too, to move on to the next level for these guys,” White said. “They want to be moving up to the North American (Hockey) League and college hockey.

“I think with the combination of everything, it’s just going to push the mentality of high intensity and getting better every day.”

Sweetland added, “Coach White’s a little bit more intense. He expects a lot out of us. He’s excited to have us here and he’s excited to be a head coach.”

Nine players return from the ‘21-’22 season, led by six forwards: Sweetland; Tyler Misialek (Fargo); Gunnar Sibley (Monticello); Max Cohen (Commerce, Michigan); Shawn Ohlenschlager Van Coller (Rosemount); and Marcus Mack (Madison, Wisconsin).

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120221.S.WCT.WarHawks Sweetland.jpg
Willmar's Michael Sweetland (21) tries to connect on a saucer pass to teammate Jordan Fjosne (26) during a NA3HL hockey game against Alexandria Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021 at the Willmar Civic Center.
Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

“We got a good group here,” said Mack, who is the top returning scorer with 34 points (12 goals, 22 assists) over 47 games between the WarHawks and the New Ulm Steel last season.

Mack continued, “We got some younger guys but for the most part, they’re starting to get into our system and gel as a team here. It’s pretty exciting to see them grow every day and get a little better.”

Sweetland had 33 points (12G, 21A) and Misialek finished with 22 points last season (13G, 9A).

“They’re coming in already knowing things and are a step ahead,” White said of the forward group. “They know what we’ve gone through the last couple years to build the reputation that’s been built and they want to win and get over that hump, too. You can’t really substitute experience.”

At goaltender, Will Kunka returns after going 11-4-0 with a .924 save percentage in 15 games last season. He is from Moorhead. Kunka will battle for playing time with newcomers Nick Pettman (White Bear Lake), Wyatt Olsonawski (Hallock) and Payton Manccuso (Winona). Olsonawski played five games with the Great Falls Americans last season.

“It just gives a lot of guys confidence knowing that you’re going to have somebody like (Kunka) as the backbone,” Mack said. “He already knows the expectations and the pace of play every night. It’s definitely a big confidence booster that he had success last year and will try to replicate that as much as he can again this year.”

The defensive pairings are a question mark for the WarHawks, with only two returning players in Spencer Clark (Albert Lea) and Brady Fairbanks (Oakdale). The blue line will have a local player in the mix in Benson’s Tyler Hadfield. White is also looking for a defensive boost from Ben Tarlton (La Porte, Texas) after he played with Granite City last season. Tarlton had brief stints with Willmar in ‘19-’20 and the North Iowa Bulls in ‘20-’21.

“He comes in with some veteran presence and a lot of games under his belt,” White said. “He’s played some important games, including the Fraser Cup games last spring, so we’re certainly looking to him to make a big difference as a 20-year-old.”

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The WarHawks’ home opener is Saturday, Oct. 1 against the Alexandria Blizzard.

Through the opening weekend, and through the course of the season, White is looking for execution and effort from the players as they look to expand past just a playoff berth.

“We’ve been pushing the guys really hard and pushing up the idea that hey, if we work hard now and get the little details down, we’ll get big results,” White said. “So execution on our systems, on our plays and the effort’s got to be there. If we don’t have effort, we have no chance. And if we have effort, we give ourselves a chance to win a hockey game and that’s really all you can ask for.”

Recent hockey coverage:
Recent hockey coverage in west central Minnesota.
A scoreboard of Friday's southeastern Minnesota boys hockey games.

Joe Brown is a sports reporter for the West Central Tribune.

He can be reached via email at: jbrown@wctrib.com or his office number: 320-214-4332.
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