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Kern County JV team developing own success story in LAKHSHL

 

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There’s something special happening in the remote town of Bakersfield in California’s Central Valley.

Known far more as an agricultural and oil hub than a hotbed for hockey, the city has produced one of the most successful programs in the L.A. Kings High School Hockey League – and it goes far beyond the varsity level.

While the Kern County Knights’ varsity team entered the new year atop the league standings, the junior varsity team has also taken some big steps forward since its difficult start.

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Richard Haas, who has served as the JV team’s manager the last three seasons and has been with the Knights program since it started four years ago, has fully bought in to what the lower-level team offers for high school hockey players. His son, Kaleb, serves as an assistant coach, and his daughter, Hannah, is a senior playing on the JV team.

“A lot of the kids who have played at the JV level for us were the types of players that were dominating at the in-house hockey level, and they needed this opportunity to take the next step in their hockey development,” Richard Haas said.

The Knights’ JV team this season is coached by Brent Ilott and assistants Kaleb Haas and Charlie Moxham, with Richard Haas and David Whitson serving as managers. The squad’s roster includes Johnny Vega, Hannah Haas, Noah Houle, Camden Aitchinson, Coleton Barulich, Jacob Clanahan, Evan Neath, Brendan Dunnigan, Riley Toms, Tyler Brandt, Timothy Haynes, Tristan Aranda, Emily Grier, Branden Bernotas, Kinsey Hillberg, Andrew Hamisch and Conner Whitson.

While the squad had struggled to a 1-7 start to the 2018-19 campaign, it experienced a dramatic turnaround from Year 1 to Year 2, and they have high hopes for the second half of this season. The Knights’ JV team went winless in league play its first season, but quickly turned the page and skated to the league’s JV championship last season.

“We really attributed it to 100 percent pure development following the USA Hockey development model,” Haas said. “The coaches kept things simple and made sure the kids were doing all the right things to improve, and as a result, kids have really moved up in the program.”

A large percentage of the players who were members of that junior varsity championship squad last year have moved up to varsity and have contributed to the squad’s perfect record through its first eight games.

“It has been a great asset for the entire program to have a strong junior varsity team,” Haas said. “A lot of those players weren’t playing hockey before we started. Many of them have come to hockey at a later age than most, and we’ve been able to develop them into successful players.”

As a whole, the Knights’ program pulls student-athletes from approximately eight schools in the greater Bakersfield area, ranging as far as 45 miles away from the team’s home rink at Valley Children’s Ice Center of Bakersfield. Many of the players and their families had grown weary of the amount of travel required to play tier hockey and may not have had any other options if not for the varsity and JV teams that the Knights began putting on the ice in 2014.

“The families couldn’t commit to 70-mile drives 2-3 times a week to play tier hockey,” Haas said of the commitment necessary for travel hockey. “When the Kings’ high school hockey league came along, it really sort of saved youth hockey for a lot of the older kids. It opened the door to keep those kids playing.

“We weren’t sure if the junior varsity team was going to become a reality, but we talked to the Kings and told them we had enough kids interested in playing at that level. Now the junior varsity level is thriving, and there are nine teams in the league.”

— Greg Ball

(Jan. 29, 2019)