‘Underdog’ Utica hockey club eyes strong finish

By: Timothy Pontzer | Shelby - Utica News | Published February 5, 2018

 Utica High senior forward Max Hartwell looks to pass during a contest earlier this season. A team captain, Hartwell said he and his teammates have embraced the underdog role this year.

Utica High senior forward Max Hartwell looks to pass during a contest earlier this season. A team captain, Hartwell said he and his teammates have embraced the underdog role this year.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

MACOMB TOWNSHIP — Last season, Bob Clouston had roughly 48 hours to prepare for his new role as head coach.

This year, he enjoyed a full offseason to prepare for his second campaign with the Utica High hockey team and is seeing major dividends from the extra time.

At press time, the Chieftains were 6-14-1 overall, which already doubled last year’s win total.

“We’re dramatically better; our wins and losses don’t indicate the team as a whole,” Clouston said before a Jan. 30 practice at Suburban Ice Macomb. “We probably lost four or five (games) we should have won. Each one has been very close.”

In 2016, Clouston officially accepted the job to lead the Chieftains Oct. 31, going through his first practice Nov. 2. Overseeing a young roster, Clouston saw the team finish 3-21-2.

Clouston admitted that season had its share of growing pains, but he is very pleased to see how each member of his roster has persevered.

“From our young guys to the older players, everybody has bought in,” Clouston said. “The leadership is good, and they play for each other. It’s a nice concept and great to see on a daily basis. There’s not one kid that I can look at any night that isn’t giving me everything they got.”

Clouston cited effort and a balanced squad as two of the biggest reasons for the turnaround.

“To go with it, we’ve got good goaltending, good defense and a nice offense,” he said.

The coach pointed to four seniors as an example of that balance, each playing key roles in each zone. Clouston highlighted Zack Essenmacher and Jacob Keary as two of his top forwards, Max Hartwell as his best player on the blue line, and Mason Waldrip as the backstop in net. Essenmacher and Hartwell serve as co-captains.

“Even though we’re small in size, we still play the whole game and never give up,” Hartwell said. “We have outstanding coaching that we all want to play for. Coach Clouston brings everything. He’s a true leader who isn’t flashy. He doesn’t bring attention; he just wants what’s best for our program.”

Clouston flipped the high praise back to his captain.

“(Hartwell) is one of the best human beings on the planet,” Clouston said. “We’re blessed he made the transition from travel hockey to us. He established himself as the captain the first day he joined us. He’s the hardest worker on and off the ice. He has a great, long future ahead of him in both life and hockey.”

Both Clouston and Hartwell have their sights set on finishing the season strong, hopefully carrying momentum into the playoffs. Utica’s playoff draw will see a matchup with Grosse Pointe South in the first round.

“No one is expecting anything from Utica, so internally our goal is to give it everything we have,” Clouston remarked. “I think we can surprise some people. If we’re healthy and on the right track, I think we can sneak up on some people. Grosse Pointe South is a pretty tough draw, but we’ll take it one game at a time.”

Hartwell said his teammates have embraced their underdog role.

“Through Utica’s history, we are known as the underdog through any sport,” Hartwell said. “With the talent we’ve been getting the past couple years, you can see through our games we’re improving. We have the benefit of being the underdog and use it as fuel. We stick together no matter the score. We’re a family, and we’re building a tradition.”

That tradition may undergo a bit of a tweak this offseason as Clouston confirmed that the Chieftains and Utica Ford II will look to combine programs next season, playing under a “Utica Unified” banner. He said that will only expedite the progress he is seeing with the program.

“When you take over a program, it takes about three years to get everything where you want it,” Clouston said. “We’re not getting too high on the highs and too low on the lows. We’re on the right track, and with hard work the wins and losses take care of themselves. We’re improving every single day. … It’s not done yet, but it’s very close.”