The Mid-Fairfield Jr. Rangers 18U team may not have had the best EHF Selects regular season and may have had to wait for an at-large bid to the 18U Tier-2 Nationals in Grand Rapids, Mich.
But what they have going for them when it comes to the Nationals, is experience. The Jr. Rangers have been to the dance three times in the last five years and won a National championship two seasons ago.
After not making it through the round-robin round last spring, despite going 2-1, head coach Chris Gragnano is hopeful that experience and all recent trips to the Nationals will help his team in Grand Rapids.
“It’s knowing how to manage the schedule,” he said. “You play one game a day, so in a lot of ways, that’s great because you focus singularly on one game; but it’s also a fair amount of down time for teenagers. So trying to keep them focused and keep them detail-oriented is huge. Also, managing bracket play can be difficult. It’s not just one win and advance and it’s not a series and advance.
“Last year is a great example because we were 2-1 and didn’t make it out of our bracket,” Gragnano added. “So having that urgency game in and game out and making sure you take care of business and not leave things to chance is crucial. It can come down to numbers and stats so I always emphasize that it’s important you take care of opportunities and put teams away and get separation because you don’t want to be standing there on Friday, looking at the standings and hoping that you’re playing on Saturday.”
Would it have been nice to get an automatic bid? Of course. But that doesn’t mean the Junior Rangers don’t have another opportunity to make a run at the title.
“From a team standpoint, we would’ve liked to have won our regional and not have to wait for an at-large bid, but however they let you in and as long as we’re playing there, that’s all I’m concerned about,” the head coach said. “We had a lot of good showings this fall at some high-profile tournaments and showcases and the learning experience those guys got from playing some teams like Northwood and some of the other high-level teams in the East, it allowed guys to flourish and grow within their own game and within a team game.”
Just as he hopes his team has learned from losing, he also knows their past success and tasting what it’s like to win championships, will help as well. The prestige and tradition of Mid-Fairfield sets a high standard and he and his players are proud and honored to uphold that.
“It’s a huge motivator,” Gragnano said of the program’s recent success at the Nationals. “You play and coach at a place like Mid-Fairfield and it’s a well-known name that’s known for its success and you want to continue to have that success. That’s just natural. With the players that we have and the caliber and the profile of a lot of these kids, you want to put them on that stage and let them show off what they can do.”
The Junior Rangers will play the Iowa Wild Wednesday, Esmark Stars on Thursday and the Neponset Valley River Rats on Friday. Gragnano and his staff have already been hard at work doing advance scouting.
“They’re made up of all prep school kids, so I do know some of the kids I’ve coached against from the prep school coaching,” Gragnano said. “I’ve also seen video and they’re like a lot of the teams going to the Nationals - they have depth, good scoring, a bunch of guys that are dangerous with and without the puck. So being able to put together a good 200-foot game is going to be important for us against frankly anybody we play at Nationals.”
Mid-Fairfield Jr. Rangers 18U USA Hockey Nationals Schedule
Wed., April 3, 3:40 p.m., vs. Iowa Wild
Thurs., April 4, 5:00 p.m., vs. Esmark
Fri., April 5, 11 a.m., Neponset Valley River Rats
All games in Grand Rapids, Mich. All times are local.