Rine: WVU Hockey to Take Ice at WesBanco

WHEELING – We generally tend to think of Division-I athletes living a life of luxury. But try telling that to West Virginia University hockey coach Zach Sonnefeld, and the seven Wheeling players on his squad.

At WVU, the sport has club status, meaning members of the team take care of roughly 90 percent of the expenses on their own.

”We’re pretty much the largest club in the school and we run on a six-figure budget,” Sonnefeld said Thursday, as the Mountaineers were preparing to embark on a 3-in-3 (three days, three games, three cities) weekend that culminates with a 2 p.m. matchup today at WesBanco Arena against John Carroll. ”Obviously we’re looking to change it, but it’s going to be a 5- or 10-year fix, not overnight.

”For the time being, these kids not only go down to be students, but they practice three nights a week and play two-three games a week.

”They have one day off a week, at best.”

That’s all part of a 40-game schedule that has the Mountaineers playing in Wheeling six times this season. In addition to Sunday, there’s the annual Mountaineer Invitational that will see WVU play four games in two days – Nov. 26-27.

Then’s there’s the battle with rival Pitt at WesBanco Arena, which will take place at 6 p.m. on Jan. 16.

”The entire team loves coming to Wheeling. It’s the nicest rink we play in all year,” Sonnefeld said. ”We play one in Charleston once a year, and we play in front of 1,500 people.

”If we can establish a support in Wheeling, we’ll play a handful here a year.”

In addition to being the head coach, Sonnefeld is forced to hold down another full-time job. But in the very few minutes he’s been free this week he took time to do this interview, and was meeting with people in the area to try and drum up even more backing.

”Ultimately, we’ve got to get some support. We played here in the past and didn’t do a good enough job getting the word out.

”I went up to Wheeling Park and to (WesBanco Arena) and spoke with youth teams and passed out as many tickets as I could.”

That’s the part of this that’s really fun. The cost is just $5 for adults, but all Wheeling Amateur Hockey Association (WAHA), high school and Travel Team players will get in for free.

Oh, and discounted WVU hockey merchandise will be on sale.

”It’s quality hockey. It’s the best of the best of their travel teams, and high school hockey teams,” Sonnefeld said. ”There are 12-15 captains of high school teams in that locker room.”

That includes Sonnefeld’s brother, Luke, who serves as captain of a Mountaineers squad that was 8-7 and had won five in a row heading into Friday night’s game at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The two were together at Wheeling Park previously.

”It is cool,” Zach Sonnefeld said. ”I don’t know how much he loves it because I’m a lot harder on him than I am anyone else.

”He was voted captain by teammates, not by me. He earned it.”

Luke Sonnefeld, a scoring machine in high school, is tied for sixth on the team in scoring with eight points (5g-3a). That equals fellow Wheeling Park alum Christian Lewton (5g-3a), who is also second on the team in penalty minutes with 18.

”We like to keep it moving,” Coach Sonnefeld said. ”We like to get pucks in deep, like to get physical and bang bodies.

”Lots of pucks on net, defensemen jumping in plays – very active.”

Those two are joined by ex-Park players Geno Catalono, who also played for Wheeling Central and is in the midst of switching from forward to defense, and Chris King (1g-4a). The Maroon Knights are represented by Ryan Herron (1g-3a) , Joe Baker and Jake Fullerton, a standout goaltender.

”I grew up playing in Wheeling, coached Wheeling Park for 3 years, and coached the under-18 team,” Zach Sonnefeld said. ”The guys on this team from Wheeling are not getting cut any special breaks.

”We have tryouts every year, and there are 90-plus guys for 30 spots.”

Shawn Rine can be reached via e-mail at Rine@theintelligencer.net