CARLSBAD — One of the city’s best high school-level athletics programs is one of the unlikeliest sports for Southern California.
The Carlsbad United Varsity hockey team is preparing for the puck to drop in its season opener at 4:10 p.m. on Sept. 10 against Beach Cities in Orange County. The mish-mash collective of North County players has quickly become one of the top programs in the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League, or ADHSHL.
The club team’s first home game is at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 24 against Fairmont Prep at Carlsbad Icetown.
The league has more than 30 schools (including Pacific Ridge School) across three divisions. The Carlsbad program began five years ago, reaching the league championship game last season before falling to Servite, 4-3.
This year, the team has moved up to Division 2 from D3 thanks to last season’s stellar performance.
“We got lucky because we’ve been able to build our program with a good group of individuals,” said head coach Christian Gerrits. “I’ve coached some of these kids since they were 10 years old. I’m not in it to win every single game. I want to move you from JV to varsity or varsity to college. It’s all about progression.”
Gerrits, who also coaches the JV team, joined the program in its second year. Gerrits’s philosophy is simple: Get his players to the next level, a college club or junior league team, or a college scholarship.
Practices twice weekly at Carlsbad Icetown — once from 7:40 p.m. to 9:40 on Monday and a mid-week practice starting at 6 a.m. Fighting for ice time is a long-standing youth hockey tradition, but the players are just happy to be on the ice preparing for this season.
The club returns 14 players, including senior captain Ryan Kunzl, a defenseman, and junior alternate captain and winger, Jace Nakamura.
Other top returners include senior winger Rex Maloni (an alternate captain), goaltenders J.D. Cammins and Zane Haber, winger and alternate captain Jackson Barrett and defensemen Caleb Begley and Kai Torcedo.
“I’d love to make it back to the championship and win,” Nakamura said. “We’re definitely on par with the last year’s team, maybe a bit better.”
Maloni and Cammins said they expect a high-flying offense similar to last year’s team, which notched a plus-83 goal differential over its opponents for a second-place regular season finish (16-5). The seniors acknowledge that competing in a higher division will be a challenge but believe this year’s squad is equal to or better than last year.
Maloni said the defense plays with a high I.Q. and a more physical style, unafraid to check their opponents to move the puck and start Carlsbad’s transition game.
“I think we’re looking bright this year,” Maloni said. “We got a good core group again. We got some new kids becoming leaders. We’re really trying to build our momentum from last year.”
As for the last five years, Gerrits and assistant coach Henry Cedres said one focus is to grow the program. Gerrits said 60 kids came to tryouts, with 20 making each team. While there is room for more players, more coaches are needed.
Currently, Carlsbad United is a co-ed program, with Abby Nakamura playing goalie. But eventually, Gerrits said the goal is to start a girls’ program outside the San Diego Angels.
Additionally, the growing popularity of the Carlsbad Youth Hockey League’s 14-and-under programs (Bantam, Peewee, Squirts, Mite and Mini-Mite) is another way to develop a steady pipeline into Carlsbad United.
“They are here to win,” Cedres said. “We’re trying to grow the league as much as we can right now and grow the team as much as we can. You see prospects come over from all over Carlsbad.”