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Coyotes players Max Kamper, left, and Declan Curtis hold off a Corona-Norco player during a game on September 7. Photo by Leslie Bird
Coyotes players Max Kamper, left, and Declan Curtis hold off a Corona-Norco player during a game on September 7. Photo by Leslie Bird

By Steve Breazeale

The process of creating a high school hockey team that draws from the Capistrano Unified School District has been a laborious one. But after 14 months of patient talks and paperwork, students attending eight local high schools finally have the chance to play alongside classmates as part of the Capistrano Coyotes high school ice hockey team.

The 22-man roster consists of students from San Juan Hills, Capistrano Valley, San Clemente and Dana Hills, to name a few.

The team is not a Capistrano Unified sanctioned sport and plays in the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League, which now features 28 teams from 19 different California schools. The Coyotes were one of 14 new teams added to the mix for the 2013-2014 season.

Coyotes head coach Darren Gardner will be in charge of building a program that, several weeks ago, did not exist. Gardner has 39 years of playing and coaching experience at the professional, high school and club level and has been in this start-up situation before.

After successfully guiding the club team Phoenix Junior Coyotes, to two Arizona State Championships, Gardner left for a coaching gig in Minnesota that was nursing a 2-year-old high school hockey program. That team was full of sophomores but eventually went on to win a Minnesota sectional title.

In the world of junior hockey, club teams have been the norm for years. The Anaheim Ducks league was established in 2008, which finally gave Southern California high school students who wanted to play at both the club and high school levels the opportunity. Half of the Coyotes players still play on their club team, which has created a unique atmosphere.

“Every single kid on the team, it’s the first time they get to play high school hockey. It’s new to them. There are more players on the bench, more players in practice. It’s a different environment,” Gardner said.

“It’s great to get more ice time in and get that high school sports experience with all the fans and everything,” Capistrano Connections Academy sophomore Declan Curtis added. “Everyone works hard and the team has a lot of potential.”

On any given week the Coyotes can be without several of their players due to club commitments. That means more ice time for the non-club players and a constant mix and match roster that Gardner calls a “juggling act.” That normally would spell trouble when it comes to winning games, but so far the Coyotes have been successful.

Max Kamper controls the puck for the Capistrano Coyotes during a game on September 7. Photo by Leslie Bird
Max Kamper controls the puck for the Capistrano Coyotes during a game on September 7. Photo by Leslie Bird

They are off to a 2-0 start in the young season that will eventually see them play 15 games. The Coyotes have outscored their opponents 8-1 and have wins over Corona-Norco and most recently, a 3-0 win over Edison that came on September 21.

Because the Coyotes draw from such a large talent pool, their roster is made up of all skill levels. They are led by three seniors, Keenan Haase (forward), Connor Reid (forward) and Colin Kennedy (defenseman). There is one freshman on the team, nine sophomores and a handful of juniors. In all, the Coyotes have players who have competed at the 18AAA, 16AAA and 16AA divisions, which Gardner feels is a good mix. The hard part, according to the veteran coach, has been getting the talent to mesh together in the early goings.

“We started with this wide vista … It’s kind of like when you were a kid. When you go to the park and all your buddies show up and you play a game. You know everyone. You know their strengths and weaknesses,” Garnder said. “Now throw in 10 kids that come from a neighborhood you’ve never seen. You don’t know the talent so you don’t know how to even up the teams. We’re still learning, trying to get comfortable and find our stride and get a routine.”

The Coyotes don’t have the luxury of an established program like Santa Margarita or JSerra have, which means they are taking baby steps in forming their style of play and practice routines until it all comes together. They are hoping to gain eight more players to reach the desired number of 30 that the Anaheim Ducks league wants them to hit.

For now the team will continue to learn how to play with each other and rely on their mix of talent as they tread onto new and yet unscratched ice. They will travel to play against San Diego South, another district-wide team, on October 5.

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