BELOIT — When Tyler Jensen describes his Beloit Memorial hockey team as family, he’s talking about a bunch of players he’s known since pre-school.
Oh yeah, and some of the Purple Knights really ARE part of his extended family.
Step-brothers Brady Wright and Riley Jensen are Tyler’s cousins.
“We’ve played together since we were in-house mites,” Riley said. “It’s tough when you think about it all coming to an end soon.”
The Purple Knights are hoping that isn’t on Friday. That’s when they travel to Milwaukee to play Marquette in a second-round WIAA regional game at Eble Ice Arena (7 p.m.).
“We can’t play as individuals in this game,” senior co-captain Wright said. “We have to play smart and we have to play together.”
They can tap into some of that camaraderie they’ve had since they were mites, Squirts, Pee Wees and Bantams.
“About half these guys I went to pre-school with,” Tyler said. “Noah Davis and I were playing together for the Rangers in beginner mites. We’re all like one big family and that’s something you don’t see too often nowadays.”
Riley said many of the players were coached by a pair of ex-Knights — Tyler’s father Greg Jensen and the step-brothers’ father, Brian Jensen.
“I loved having them as coaches,” Riley said. “They pushed us all to become the hockey players we are today. And I have to thank my grandfather, Wayne Jensen, because he’s the guy who pushed the Jensens into hockey in the first place.”
As all the Knights came up the Beloit Youth Hockey Association ladder, they found success.
“We made the state tournament every year until we were Bantams and then because we had out-of-district players we were disqualified,” Riley said. “So we went to Chicago and played in a AA tournament even though we were a single A program and we won the thing. That was pretty cool. We were like 50-14-2 that season.”
Tyler said they often talked then about what it would be like to play for the Knights.
“We always looked up to the high school team,” he said. “We all were excited about playing for the Knights and representing the community. We really worked for that growing up.”
Tyler did break up the gang when he left the Knights to play junior hockey a year ago. He returned for his senior year, though, and he has had a stellar season. He led the Big Eight Conference in scoring and currently has 62 points on 27 goals and 35 assists. Riley has 58 points (23 goals, 35 assists). Wright has seven goals and 21 assists.
“The season has gone great,” Tyler said. “The lines are all playing well. We had a lot of hopes for this year and I think we accomplished a lot. Coming into this game we have to continue to work hard and do the things we’ve been taught. I think we have the heart and the energy to get it done.”
The Knights know heading to Milwaukee they may have to overcome some obstacles.
“We can only control what we can control and that’s playing hard and not talking back to the refs,” Tyler said.
One thing you can’t control is illness. Tyler ended up in urgent care on Monday with a skyrocketing fever, but recovered in time to score two goals in an 8-2 victory over Monroe Tuesday night at Edwards Ice Arena.
“It was so bad I had a hard time keeping my head off my desk Monday,” Tyler said. “I had the flu, a sinus infection, a cold, everything. I got some antibiotics and I was glad I could play (Tuesday night).”
Riley was happy to see his cousin in the lineup. Heck, he’s been happy to see him back all season, along with Delavan-Darien standout Jake Benzing (38 points), who missed last season after tearing an ACL in football.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Riley said. “We’re back together and we’re scoring a lot on offense. Brady and Nate (Polglaze) are guiding our defense. We’ve shown a lot of improvement this season, doubling our win total.”
For several of the Knights (13-11-1), the WIAA regionals won’t be their final faceoffs, win or lose.
Tyler’s next team may well be the North Iowa Bulls, a junior team which plays one level below the NAHL’s Janesville Jets. He’ll also go to some NAHL camps to try out.
Wright expects to play for the Cincinnati Thunder, who have also recruited Polglaze. Janesville Jets Coach Joe Dibble has invited him to practice with the team.
“It’s been very helpful playing at a faster pace against stronger kids,” said Wright, who at 6-foot-4 and over 200 pounds has the frame coaches are looking for in a recruit.
The ultimate goal is a college career, Tyler said.
“Everyone wants to play Division I hockey, but there are a lot of kids out there and it’s a really big hockey world,” Tyler said. “There are a lot of good D-III programs, like St. Norbert, Stevens Point and Eau Claire. D-III would be awesome, too.”
As for Riley, he could come back for his senior year or could opt to play junior hockey elsewhere, too.
Right now, he’ll just focus on the task at hand.
“We have to take this one game at a time,” he said. “Marquette beat us in overtime in our first game. We’re going in there and play as hard as we can to get out of there with a win.”