Holmes Blog: Susens quiet confidence again leads West hockey team to state tournament
The Wausau West High School hockey team will be making the trip south to Madison again for the state hockey tournament this week. That statement is nothing new but this season it was anything but a sure thing. The Warriors were able to avenge late-season losses to D. C. Everest and Stevens Point with victories in the sectional semifinals and finals to earn a spot in a state quarterfinal this Thursday against Verona. While trying to figure out what got this team that struggled to six losses in nine games late in the regular season back to state it comes back to one thing…and one man. The record that Pete Susens have put up in more than three and a half decades at West speaks for itself: a state-record for wins by a Wisconsin high school hockey coach, 13 trips to the state tournament, four state finals appearances and the state title in 2011. However that doesn’t explain why the success has occurred. The success for the West program starts at the top with coach Susens.
The first time I met the coach was in the fall of 2001 when I introduced myself as the new play-by-play announcer for Wausau West. What I remember from that first meeting is being asked if I knew hockey and would be able to call the game on the radio. This is a leader that always wants to make sure every aspect of the program is up to the high standards he sets, and that evens includes the radio broadcast. Coach Susens is never satisfied, always striving for more. He’s well-known for the constant changing of lines looking for that right combination. After a game where his team allows none or one goals in a win he’ll bring up the breakdown that allowed an opportunity for the opposing team. He’ll give credit to one of his players who does the little things right and complement an opponent after a loss. A moment I’ll never forget came after a gut-wrenching upset loss to Mosinee in the sectional finals in 2008. After the game finished I didn’t have a chance to talk to the coach because I had to leave to get back to Wausau for a playoff basketball game that night. I’m setting up just minutes before the basketball broadcast up in the crow’s nest at the Fieldhouse and turn to see coach Susens. He had climbed up the stairs and just wanted to thank me for the coverage of the games that season. At that point it had been five years since the Warriors made the state tournament and they were supposed to win that day. It was immense disappointment but this coach still had the immense class to thank me, who was but a little part of the program, for what I did. It was a great example of handling disappointment that has made the recent success for him and the program something so deserved.
What I saw on Saturday before the game was a quiet confidence that started at the top and went to the assistant coaches and to the players. This was a coach who knew late in the season that one thing his team needed to do to avoid losses like 3-0 to Everest and 2-0 to SPASH late in the season was to crash the net more. After improving on that task the last couple of weeks the Warriors took it to another level on Saturday, getting rebounds and goals because of crashing the net of the Panthers. Another constant is coach Susens appreciation for the goals that aren’t pretty but are always beautiful through his eyes. Doing the little things….making the “hockey” plays….is what Susens-coached teams always do so well.
Over the last four years Wausau West is 19-2 in the playoffs with three trips to the state title game, a state championship and another chance for the title this week. That 19-2 record includes a 7-2 mark at the state tournament against great teams like Notre Dame Academy and Eau Claire Memorial. The only losses in that time was a 1 goal plus empty net state final against USM in 2010 and a double OT thriller against NDA last season. Pete Susens teams always show up in the big games and, at a better than 90 percent clip in recent years in the postseason, usually wins. Great coaches have the ability to have his teams ready at the big moments and noone does that better than coach Susens. West will unlikely be the favorite in any game they play at state starting Thursday against Verona, but one thing will be almost certain….West will play as close to their abilities on the big stage as anyone who hits the Alliant Energy Center ice and that comes from the man at the top with the quiet intensity and quiet confidence of a coach still at the top of his game.