Photo courtesy of Michael Hoffbauer Photography

The Braves are a few hours away from competing for a state championship in ice hockey. While excellence in all of its forms is common, if not expected, at Brebeuf Jesuit, this team’s tale varies greatly from the typical formula.

A little under two years ago, Brebeuf hockey was at a crossroads. Coming off a season that featured far more losses than victories, the Braves were struggling to even field a team. There were not enough players in the school to fill out one line, let alone a whole squad. The head coaching vacancy was not drawing much interest either. Like so many other high school club hockey programs over the last two decades, their existence was fragile.

Enter Willie Mitchell. When Mitchell was named the head coach in the summer of 2017, he brought with him a wealth of knowledge and experience. His coaching career spanned over two decades with stints on staffs at Michigan State, Wayne State, and Vermont. He was also very familiar with the Brebeuf family, having served as an assistant coach with the previous staff.

“When Coach Perkins left, I kind of figured that was that,” Mitchell recalled. “A little later, a board member approached me and suggested I should consider putting in for the vacancy. I had not really considered it up to that point.”

Upon accepting the job, Mitchell’s biggest struggle was simply filling out his roster. The circumstances forced him to look to the “draft.” The draft consists of players who have been cut from the high school teams to which they are naturally assigned. This meant his players would be coming from all over the metro area, possessing varying skill levels. While this could have been a tricky situation, the players bought in quickly.

“It was mostly a matter of just letting them know this is how I coach and what I expect,” said Mitchell. “Once the group started playing hard and seeing the results of our system, they were all-in.”

While the team was clearly in rebuilding mode, they soon became a dark-horse no one wanted to face. They enjoyed several upsets in the back half of the season, even making it to the City Championship.

Mitchell was able to parlay those successes into further bolstering his roster via travel players. Only one player from last year’s draft class remains on what is now a very talented team who continues to trend upwards.

“Sometimes it’s hard to sell travel players on playing high school hockey,” Mitchell said. “But guys see we have good things happening here. We have our own locker room and a rich tradition. The community support is outstanding, and the parents have been fantastic.”

The importance of a good locker room, both literally and figuratively, cannot be overstated when it comes to selling a program. Brebeuf junior MacAlister Perkins points to this team’s chemistry as a differentiator from previous seasons.

“We have a special bond within the locker room. I can count on any of my teammates being there for me when I need them the most. We are a family, and we stick up for each other,” Perkins explained. “I’d say that I appreciate the community most at Brebeuf, it sounds cliche to say, but that is what I noticed from the start. I’ve been able to watch my class of 2020 grow close together and demonstrate our school spirit at sporting events. This sense of community even carries over to the hockey team.”

That school spirit will be on full display when the fan bus rolls into Dwyer at 1:30 CST for today’s championship tilt with South Bend Riley. Coach Mitchell believes his team’s destiny is in its own hands.

“We just need to stay disciplined and play as we’re capable,” said Mitchell. “The keys will be to utilize our speed while remaining relentless and disciplined. I’m excited to watch our guys dig deeper and give that ‘championship effort!’ Mostly, I just want them to enjoy the moment and have fun.”