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Kern County eager to defend its LAKHSHL championship

 

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After years of near-misses, the Kern County Knights finally reached the top of the mountain last season, not only winning the L.A. Kings High School Hockey League (LAKHSHL) championship but also taking home the title for Division 2B in the California Amateur Hockey Association.

Defending their titles, however, will not be an easy task.

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The Knights lost 11 players from last year’s team to graduation, so as the 2019-20 season begins, expectations are high, but there is also a fair amount of uncertainty. It will take time for younger, less-experienced players to establish themselves as leaders and start to make significant contributions.

Paul Willett, the head coach of Kern County’s varsity team, said he expects to use the first few months of the season to evaluate the squad’s strengths and weaknesses before ramping up for a strong finish to the regular season and, hopefully, a deep run in the postseason.

“I think we’ll really start to understand what this team looks like once we get to Christmas,” Willett said. “We’re going to set our goals high because you never want to underestimate yourself, but it will take time for this group to establish an identity and show me who they really are.”

The Knights’ 2019-20 roster includes Coleton Barulich, Nathan Bicknell, Tyler Brandt, Noah Carpenter, Jacob Clanahan, Zachary Freedman, Jayden Hitt, Noah Houle, Joshua Jones, Kyle Lathan, Brady Nance, Emile Rodrigue, Cole Schroder, David Smith, Branson Sweaney, Matthew Timchenko, Conner Whitson and Noah Wiley.

The Kings league championship last year was particularly sweet for the Knights, who had played in the title game each of the league’s first three seasons and came up short. The fourth time proved to be the charm, however. They went 21-0 against LAKHSHL opponents, including the postseason.

That means that as the 2019-20 season begins, there’s no shortage of confidence surrounding the program. Bringing home a championship banner can only help the program grow and attract more players who want to be part of a winning tradition.

Willett, though, makes the point that past results are no guarantee of future success, and he’s not going to let himself or his players rest on their laurels.

“Winning our first championship was great, but we have a challenge ahead of ourselves this season and can’t just expect that we’re going to end up in the title game again,” Willett said. “We’re going to continue to work hard and do all the right things, and hopefully put ourselves in a position where we have a chance to do something great again.”

The Knights will have a core group of players that they’ll lean on to lend leadership to the group. Smith returns after winning the league’s Goaltender of the Year award last year and having him between the pipes should keep them in every game. Others that Willett will be leaning on include Rodrigue and Carpenter on the blue line and Nance up front.

“Goaltender is the most important position on the ice, in my opinion, and there’s no reason why David can’t be ever better than he was last year,” Willett said. “He’s our strength going forward. We also have the foundation with a few veterans who are fitting in really well with the younger kids.”

No matter the makeup of the team, the aim is still to shoot for the stars and for the Knights to find themselves playing in an NHL arena with everything on the line come March.

“We’re going to be a young team, but we’re going to refocus and we’re still going to set our goals to make it to the STAPLES Center,” he said. “We’re going to take things day by day and try to get better with each week that passes. That’s our focus right now.”

Photo/Tori Pizzuto

— Greg Ball

(Oct. 2, 2019)