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By Dan Hardenbrook

After an incredible season on the ice, the State Savings Back 14U team seemed unstoppable. But that momentum has slowed, and now the team’s biggest battle may actually be outside of competition. Simply getting to the game has become a challenge.

Head Coach John Nutkins is doing everything he possibly can to keep his kids in top shape. But some things are out of his control. First, there has been a lack of available games. State Savings Bank has played just twice since winning the District 8 Championship in Negaunee on March 7.

No other teams are playing games. Ice rinks are melting. The team scheduled a scrimmage against the older Hidden Estates 18U team, but it was canceled due to spring break.

“There’s nothing that you can really do that will replicate a game,” Nutkins said. “I usually like to play at least four games the weekend before a tournament just to get us in game shape.”

One of Nutkins’ priorities is maintaining the team’s focus and staying engaged. “We are working on a lot of small game areas and pushing the intensity,” he said

To help the team make the most of its time, Nutkins turned to another local player in the TAYHA system, bringing in Logan Lusk as a backup goalie. This has opened up a whole bunch of drills and options, with two goalies in practice.

Nutkins said the primary focus in practice has been on puck possession. “Skating with the puck, moving the puck…the two games we did play in Houghton – I was pretty disappointed in how we worked and moved the puck. That and the physical part has been a big part of the plan.”

The other bigger challenge has been the ongoing battle with COVID. He doesn’t want his team to miss out on a championship game due to the pandemic.

“We are doing everything we can to not catch COVID,” he said. “Social distancing in practice, keeping kids separated in the locker room, stressing to them to be extra cautious. One positive case could put our whole team in quarantine if we aren’t careful.”

He says caution is key especially here at the end – any game or scrimmage could be a COVID exposure. “The question we keep asking in each situation is, ‘Is it worth it?’” he said. “We could be fine, follow all of the rules, and do our part, but what happens if the other team has a positive or has an issue come up? Then we get punished for playing and are out of it and it’s not even in our control.”  Nutkins says his head is spinning trying to keep track of all of the requirements and keeping his team on a path to play.

The team has begun routine COVID testing of contact sport athletes, a new MDHHS regulation. The first round of testing took place prior to Monday night’s practice; results are back in 15 minutes.

“At the end of the day, we have to make sure we get there and get the chance to play,” said Nutkins. “I don’t want to see this thing decided by teams not being able to play. I really hope everyone else has the same focus. The last thing I want is to have it shut down again.”