Sean Driscoll and Joey Hobbs, senior leaders of the North Shore Conference champion Homestead hockey team, know who the toughest man in the squad is, and it's not any of the players on the ice.
'I've been here since he started, and I know his backstory,' said captain and defenseman Driscoll of coach Tony Navarre's well-publicized battle with leukemia. 'He's easy to look up to. He gives us advice based on what he's been through, and it really gives us a perspective that we didn't understand before.'
Navarre was just starting his comeback from the illness when he formally took over the hockey program, and now he's strong and active and looking to lead the Highlanders to a WIAA state tournament this year.
He's very proud of the team that finished up the North Shore season at 8-0 with a 5-1 win over Cedarburg on Jan. 26. They started the week at 12-7-1 overall.
'It is a great accomplishment for the players to go through conference 8-0,' Navarre said. 'In looking back, I don't know that we have ever done that. We have been unbeaten in conference, but I do not know that we have always played eight games.
'I think it is a statement of how hard the guys have worked as a team.'
And how hard the coach has worked.
'It's really fun playing for coach Navarre,' said Hobbs. 'He's very dedicated and really stays on top of things. That first year on the team, he was still sick, but now he's really gotten into a rhythm and become a really good coach.'
Navarre will try to put a little more sizzle into his team's skating, for after the win over Cedarburg, they went on a western state road trip and dropped tough games to West Salem and the Omni co-op by identical scores of 3-2 on Jan. 29 and 30, respectively.
They should have been energized by the 'Coaches vs. Cancer' game with University School on Feb. 3 and will also host De Pere in a nonconference tilt at 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 6.
'Friday (against West Salem), we played really well and dropped a tough one on a bad turnover late in the game,' said Navarre. 'Saturday (against Omni) was a huge disappointment. No energy, guys not working well together before the game, poor attitudes ... not the team that showed up on Friday and certainly not the team that won conference.
'My hope, wake-up call, and they reset and commit to playing the right way. I'll have to keep the intensity level up this week, although USM provides a lot of motivation in itself.'
Driscoll thinks that what will happen.
'He does a nice job of scheduling our games,' he said. 'Hard games that prepare us for getting into the playoffs. He wants us at our best for games like University School and Appleton.'
Driscoll said that the experienced team (10-plus seniors, including forward Joseph Verespej, who is another four-year varsity performer) has a leadership group much like the well-respected leadership unit that has served the football program so well over the years. Driscoll was a defensive back for the WIAA D2 state champion Highlander football squad this past fall.
'There are about five or six of us, and we talk about goals and what we want to accomplish,' Driscoll said.
Which right now is a state tournament berth, which would be the first since 2007. The playoffs will start in a few weeks.
Against Cedarburg, the Highlanders actually fell behind 1-0, but two goals from Jake Elchert and one apiece from Brooks Ralph, Andy Buchanan and Hobbs paved the way to victory as Connor McPike made 23 saves.
Hobbs, the diminutive (5-6, 125 pounds) center and offensive catalyst for the Highlanders, said the team will look to put the poor weekend behind them and build on what they've accomplished already.
'It was cool to go 8-0 in the conference,' he said, 'but this is the important part of the season. Hard games like University School get us prepared for the playoffs because we need to get a good seed when we get into the sectionals.
'We get back to playing well, we know we can compete with anyone.'