Utica-Ford Unified coach Bob Clouston instructs one of his players during a recent practice. This season marks the first that Utica High has merged with Utica Ford II.

Utica-Ford Unified coach Bob Clouston instructs one of his players during a recent practice. This season marks the first that Utica High has merged with Utica Ford II.

Photo by Patricia O'Blenes


Utica-Ford Unified hockey turns nothing into something

By: Jacob Herbert | C&G Newspapers | Published December 3, 2018

 Utica-Ford United senior Kyle Manzella participates in a drill at a recent practice. Manzella said continuing to improve game by game is a goal for him and the team this year.

Utica-Ford United senior Kyle Manzella participates in a drill at a recent practice. Manzella said continuing to improve game by game is a goal for him and the team this year.

Photo by Patricia O'Blenes

MACOMB TOWNSHIP — Just a few months before the season started, Utica High and coach Bob Clouston did not know if they were going to have a hockey program. At the end of last season, the Chieftains lost 10 seniors on a 15-man roster.

“With only five coming back, we realized that if we didn’t do something, we weren’t going to have a program,” Clouston said. “Over the summer when we didn’t have great numbers, we actually got worried again, going, ‘Oh my gosh, we might not have a program.’”

This past offseason, Utica merged with Utica Ford II in an effort to save the program. It took a lot of hard work on behalf of the coaches and the administration from both schools to get kids interested in Utica-Ford United hockey.

Once summer vacation ended and school began, the floodgates opened.

“I think the awareness,” Clouston said on what changed from the summer to fall months. “Getting it out there for all the kids to know. I think over the summer, it’s hard to get a hold of all the kids. Once the school year started, more and more kids started to turn out.”

With a small handful of games under its belt in the 2018-19 season, Utica-Ford Unified has a strong 20-man roster and has goals out in front of it.

For the short term, Clouston said he would like the team to finish .500 or better this season. He also wants the team to make academic All-State, which means the cumulative GPA of the team needs to be 3.0 or higher. This is something the Chieftains accomplished last year. Clouston wants to repeat.

Long term, making the kids feel welcome is the coaching staff’s top priority.

“We are trying to create a belief system,” the coach said. “In my eyes, 95 percent of all athletes, the highest sport they’ll ever play is varsity sports. Our goal is to build a culture here where kids can’t wait to play for Utica-Ford hockey.”

That culture is already beginning to take shape. From setting up the dressing room and having music played at the games, to turning the lights off and having the kids enter the ice through a tunnel, Clouston and his staff have worked hard to make sure players are excited to put on a jersey and play.

“We do everything as if they play for the Detroit Red Wings,” Clouston said. “That’s our goal. If you know that nine out of 10 kids, when high school is done that’s the highest they’re ever going to play, you want them to look back on those days and go, ‘That was amazing.’”

As for players helping to lead this resurgent program, seniors James Aquisto and Nathan Kobaine have fit that bill, according to their coach.

“Mr. Aquisto and Nathan have really stepped up their leadership,” Clouston said. “They’re both relatively quiet guys, and I’ve seen Nathan especially sprout this year. It’s pleasant to see the way he’s come along. Jimmy has always been a remarkable guy. He’s a born leader.”

Other leaders on the team include captain Turner Tomatti and Kyle Manzella. Both players noted how building chemistry within a unified team will bring success to the program down the road.