Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Eli 12.2: In Control

I haven't had anything to write about Eli 12.2 in a while.

No drama, no crisis, no real need for guidance. A little framing, maybe, but not much else. He seems so poised, so in control.

Seventh grade has been smooth sailing for the first six weeks, maybe the best beginning he's ever had to a school year. He likes most of his teachers, he's friends with a ton of eighth graders, and he enjoys the greater sense of responsibility in middle school.

He's managed his homework so well that we rarely even check with him.

Plus he's playing hockey six days a week. Travel practice on Monday, House practice on Tuesday, 4x4 on Wednesday, Travel practice on Thursday, goalie practice on Saturday, and House practice on Sunday.

His House team starts playing games this Saturday, and the coach has already told Eli that he's going to double-shift him--one shift at wing, then one as a defenseman, then one shift on the bench. They've had four scrimmages (15 minutes each) against one of the other House teams, and Eli's scored in three of them (with three assists). He's suddenly taller and stronger, one of the best skaters in House, and when he's on the wing, he dominates.

After the Leveling tournament with his travel team, we had a brief talk. "You played two periods of a great game in the semis," I said. "And that was without practicing well. Do you know how well you'll play if you can crank it up in practice?"

"Yes," he said. "And I will."

And he did. With every practice, he looked sharper. When he's playing well, the balance between anticipation and reaction shifts toward anticipation. He moves so quickly that he's waiting for shots instead of trying to reach them.

It's a long journey to where he wants to go. Most of that journey is taken in practice. The games just reflect what's been happening in practice, and for him to be really, really good, he has to understand that, and he has to always be the hardest working kid on the ice.

Most kids can't do that. They can't get treat practice with that kind of importance. Eli understands, though, and with only rare exceptions, he works his butt off.

Last weekend, his team had their first two games in their travel league. They're in "A" league, which is definitely a couple of cuts above where he played last year. He looked so sharp in practice, though, that I thought he was going to play very, very well.

The first game was on Saturday against a Houston team that had played at the AA level last year (as second-year Squirts--they dropped down one level this season, since they're first year Peewees). This was the same team they'd beaten 5-2 in the leveling tournament, but Eli hadn't played that game. He's in a 50/50 rotation with the other goalie (who's also very, very good, and they've become friends), and it wasn't his game.

This first game wasn't his game, either, so he sat on the bench and charted shots. His team didn't play well. They hadn't played a game in almost a month, and their spacing was way off, along with their passing. Eli's friend kept them in the game for a long time, but they wound up losing 3-1.

The game Sunday morning was at 8:45, and Eli likes morning games. We followed the same routine we do for goalie practice on Saturday morning: get up at 7, leave for McDonald's at 7:15, have a biscuit and a Powerade, and get to the rink at 7:45.

"Three keys," I said as we were driving to the rink. "One: precision. If your movements are precise, it's easier to chain movements together, and you can make as many moves as you need. Two: balance. You also have to stay balanced to make multiple moves, and it lets you use your quickness. Three: glove and blocker forward. If they're forward, you don't have to move them as far up or down to respond to a shot."

"Got it," he said. I'm not even sure he needs three keys anymore, but I like to do it as framing, and he doesn't seem to mind.

"One other thing," I said. "You are the best athlete on the ice. You're the fastest, and the quickest, and those kids have NO IDEA what they're about to run into."

I looked in the rearview mirror and saw him smile. "I'm ready," he said. "I feel really, really good."

When the game started, it was Saturday all over again, only worse. For the first five minutes of the game, his team barely had the puck at all, and Eli was getting peppered with shots.

None were getting through, though.

He was so quick and decisive, and he made every kind of save imaginable. I counted ten shots in the first five minutes, but he was just better than the kids who were shooting on him. And I've never seen him be so precise--I didn't see one inch of wasted movement.

By the end of the first period, the other team had fourteen shots, and we only had three, but Eli's team was playing better. He looked invincible, and his teammates were feeding off that confidence.

In the second period, Eli's team was still skating uphill, but they hacked in a rebound midway through the period, and suddenly, they were ahead 1-0. With that goal, they seemed even more energized, and their puck possession steadily got better.

Early in the third, with the score still 1-0, there was a loose puck in front of Eli's crease, and a kid fired a wrist shot. Just as I was thinking that it was going to be tough sledding at 1-1, Eli flicked out his glove in something straight out of The Matrix and deflected the shot away.

It was a spectacular save. For most of the game, he was so in command that he was making everything look easy, but there was absolutely no way to make that save. He made it, though, and a few minutes later his team scored again to make it 2-0.

The other team was so intimidated at this point that they just stopped taking any shots from the wings. They started trying to make the prefect pass into the slot, but Eli knocked some of those passes away, and his teammates intercepted others. His team had started very poorly, but by the end of the game, they were playing very well, and controlling the flow of play.

He had to make one more very tough save, but he made it so smoothly that it looked easy. He's never been so much in command. His team added an empty netter and the final was 3-0.

As soon as the buzzer sounded, he was mobbed by his teammates. It was a shutout, and a beastly one.

I asked him later how it felt. "Like no one could score," he said. "Ever."

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