“I couldn’t imagine playing for anyone else,” peewee goaltender Nicholas Leacox said of the NorCal Extreme hockey club, which draws players from Davis and Woodland.
And why would he, as the organization is riding high this week with four of its teams headed to the AAU Junior Olympics Tournament, which begins Thursday. In addition to those who are headed to Huntington Beach — NorCal’s 12U, 14U, 16U and 18U squads — 11 NorCal players, including Leacox, will represent the Extreme on Team USA Northwest squads.
“I am very excited to play and I think we have a chance to be successful in all age groups, especially with so many local players on the team,” Leacox added.
The first four days of the tournament will feature the NorCal 14U team competing in the AA division, while the local 18U squad, known as the Saxons, will play in the top-level A division. Four days of international Youth World Cup play follow that, with the tournament wrapping up with regular 12U and 16U competition. The Extreme 12U team will face A competition, with the 16U crew taking on the AA division.
According to Extreme coach Eddie Berlin, who was selected to the play goalie for the Northwest U18 team, it is no small feat for the club to have so many players picked to compete in the World Cup play, where they will face some of the best young athletes from around the nation and the world.
After signing up to be watched, players are scouted at their regional qualifier, then picked for Team USA competition. Berlin attributes NorCal’s large group of selections to the club’s “specialized coaching staff, the team chemistry and the philosophy of controlling the puck and playing their own game.”
Berlin is joined on the Northwest 18U squad by fellow locals Brian Varley, Jacob Muller and Paul Hermle. Beyond their natural talent, the quartet points to their hustle and its chemistry inside and outside the rink as reasons for their success.
“I don’t know if I would want to play without my teammates and close friends and I feel the chemistry we built over this season will translate very well against some of the other all-star teams that have a bunch of stars who have never played together,” said Muller, a veteran for the local club but a first-time Team USA member.
The Team USA 16U roster will feature Woodland-Davis area players Caleb Hermle, Paul’s younger brother, who scored 36 goals and dished out 24 assists for the Extreme this season; Danny Kumata (34 and 25); and Ricky Pacciorini (15 and 10).
“(Caleb Hermle) is the hardest worker on the team who always wants to improve,” Berlin said, speaking as a coach. “Ricky is a hard worker and a grinder. He is very quick out there and has a lot of drive. Danny, on the other hand, has a lot of potential … he is extremely quick with a hard shot.”
On the 14U Northwest team, Joe Blakewell is the lone skater representing NorCal, with Leacox playing between the pipes. According to Berlin, Blakewell earned the selection because he has “incredible awareness, like a football quarterback. He sees the game’s flow and on top of all that gives the same effort in warm-ups as he does in the final minutes of a game.”
Using these abilities, Blakewell netted 104 goals and handed out 49 assists this past Extreme season. Meanwhile, Leacox’s 558 saves and save percentage of 90 attest to both his brilliance and consistency.
“Nic is used to playing big and playing against older kids (he plays goalie for the 16U team as well as the 14Us) so when he comes back down to his age level, he is very well prepared,” Berlin said. “He really enjoys the game and is always hungry for more.”
It will be a family affair for the Blakewells as Joe’s younger brothers Sam (89 goals, 31 assists) and Nick (27 and 32) were picked for Northwest 12U team. Like their older sibling, the younger Blakewells are strong on both ends of the rink while also being excellent team players and leaders.