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High school hockey hits the Rogue Valley

The fizzling Stars have given new life to area hockey.

Five months ago, life looked pretty bleak for youth hockey players like Cody Schoonover, Paul Fraser and a handful of others.

The group had played organized hockey through the Rogue Valley Youth Hockey Association for several years before the midget-level Stars failed to field a team for the 2003-04 season.

"We didn't have enough players and we didn't have a coach," explained Schoonover, a junior at Ashland High. "We didn't have anywhere to play, so we just decided to start high school hockey."

With four other players from the Stars team, a few Ashland High students who'd played hockey in the past and a couple who'd hardly ever skated before, the Grizz co-ed ice hockey team came to be.

"It's great because high school hockey has given the older kids a chance to play hockey, since there wasn't a midget team this year due to the numbers," said Noel Littlefield, the president of the RVYHA. "It also gives kids a chance to play who wouldn't normally be able to play on the traveling team because it's very costly. That's great."

The Grizzlies have pulled together 15 players of varying skill and experience levels to play on the inaugural team. What's more, the Ashland ice hockey team inspired other area high schools to start similar programs. Both South Medford High and Crater High recruited former RVYHA players, as well as novices, to create three high school ice hockey teams in the valley.

"The best part for me has been all of the new players that haven't ever played before and for them to find the love of the game," Fraser said. The seni

or had played organized ice hockey for eight years, both with RVYHA and in the local men's league, before the Stars team fizzled out. With Schoonover, Fraser helped form the Grizz program. "Cody and I started running captain's practice in September and the other teams started in November."

With a lot of promise

Although the Grizz ice hockey team is brand new, players and parents are hopeful the sport will take off at the prep level. Outside of the Rogue Valley, only Portland-area schools currently support club ice hockey.

"I think the goal for our kids is that they get competitive enough so they can play other high school teams around the state," Littleton said. "It's a great sport. It's very safe - they wear more pads that football and the kids can play together. Eventually, we hope to have a girls team and a boys team. Right now, though, they can play together. What other sport is like that?"

As it stands now, the Grizzlies may be the most competitive of the three area teams.

"We have the top players, the most veteran players," Schoonover said of Ashland's team. "The other teams only have one or two, but almost all of our kids have played before."

Fraser, with eight years on the ice, has the most experience of any high school player in the area. After him, South Medford's Brandon Thomas has been playing the longest, followed by Schoonover with five years playing on local teams.

"Since we're probably the top team here, we'll try to play as a team," Schoonover said. "We'll work on passing and just get better instead of scoring and scoring."

Sunday morning, the Grizzlies got a sample of what's to come. AHS took on the Stars bantam team, a group of 13- and 14-year-old players at the Rink in Medford. The Stars had topped both Crater and South Medford earlier in the week, but Ashland had the stamina and skill to put one over the Stars. Buoyed by goals from Fraser,

Things are different

While the former Stars players enjoy having a team, the level of play has diminished because so many athletes either don't have experience with hockey or simply haven't played together before.

"I was a little bummed about the level of hockey," Fraser said. "It's not the level that I'm used to, but this'll be fun because I'm out there playing with friends."

"We have some kids who aren't up to par yet," Schoonover said. "They're not as well-rounded as the other players we've had."

Because many players had little to no experience in ice hockey before they joined one of the high school teams, the league chose to run with a stricter set of game rules for the first season.

" next year, that skill level will definitely increase," Littleton said. "That's why this year there's no checking, but next year there will be."

Though the changes to the game format disappointed some veterans, it also gives those experienced players a new challenge.

"This is a non-hitting league, which messes with my defense," Fraser said. "My defense will have to be a lot more stick play and body positioning. I'm just going to have to make the first move."

However, having the foundations of a high school hockey league in Southern Oregon is a strong beginning. Organizers see opportunities to increase participation both at other high schools in the area and over the mountains in Klamath Falls.

"There's a new rink in Klamath Falls, so maybe we could have a team there," Littleton said. "We're just waiting for it to grow."

"Teaching the kids how to play hockey keeps the sport alive," Schoonover said. "Hockey will be the next big sport in Oregon."

It's just amazing

Both players and parents have high hopes for the future of the Grizz hockey program and high school hockey around Oregon, right now they're just enjoying the chance to play together as they build up the sport.

"I'm just going to have fun," said Fraser, who plans to continue his hockey career on Western Washington University's club team next year. "I want everyone to have something they can say 'Wow, I did that in high school and it was so cool.'"

The three area teams will play a two-month schedule, facing each other three times before competing in a round-robin conference tournament. There is no state-level championship for prep hockey.

Regardless, the important thing to players and fans this year is to have the team. They believe interests will grow and that more high school athletes will be attracted to hockey in the near future.

"It's a great game," Littleton said. "It's fun to watch and the kids love it."

Schoonover, with his years of experience, agreed.

"It's an adrenaline rush," he said of hockey. "I can't live without it."