Entering this year's high school hockey season with a new coach a young team, the Soldotna Stars knew it would be tough to pick up many wins.
They also knew they would need some calm, level-headed leadership out on the ice and they got just what they needed from senior goalie Jon Verhelst.
"Nothing rattles him. He's a steady influence back there," said Soldotna hockey coach Aaron Swanson. "He's a great leader. He's just a real good, calming influence it helps keep the team focused and keeps us in the game."
Verhelst certainly was front and center for the Stars this season, often being called on to make more than 30 saves a game he made 50 in the Stars' semifinal loss to Kenai Central in last weekend's Region III/4A tournament and stopped 44 a week earlier when Soldotna closed out the regular season with an overtime win against the Kardinals.
"Thirty or 40 (saves) it makes it fun," Verhelst said. "If there are no shots, it gets pretty boring, so I don't really mind."
Verhelst said he first started playing hockey with the Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association as a third-grader, and began to learn the craft of the goaltender when he reached fifth grade. He counts Ed Belfour, then playing with the Chicago Blackhawks, Verhelst's favorite team, among his early influences at the position.
"They pretty much needed a goalie, and I thought it would be fun," Verhelst said.
Verhelst stuck with the position through high school, and once he joined the Stars, was able to learn from Kelly Gee, Kenny Bishop and Egan Gleason, some of the central peninsula's top high school goaltenders in recent years.
"They always helped me out, and we were all friends, so there weren't any hard feelings," Verhelst said of the rivalry among goaltenders.
Verhelst said the highlight of the season was beating Kenai in the regular-season finale.
"Everyone thought we had no chance," Verhelst said.
Swanson said the things that made Verhelst a good goalie were more than just his skills and size at 6-foot-1 and 275 pounds, Verhelst fills a lot of the net.
"He's smart," Swanson said. "He plays to his strengths, rather than letting the shooter playing against him play to his. He controls his angles real well, and controls the game."
Swanson said Verhelst also was important in keeping the Stars' locker room upbeat, despite a tough season.
"Jon, and all of our seniors, had a really positive attitude all year," Swanson said. "They knew it was going to be tough getting wins, but the attitude in our locker room was that of a winning team."
Verhelst's attitude and intelligence also translates well to the gridiron, where he was a three-year varsity starter for the Stars on the offensive line as well as a major contributor along the defensive front.
"He's been tremendous for us. He's really just a student of the game," said SoHi football coach Sarge Truesdell. "He knows where to go on every play. Coach (Jeff) Baker and Coach (Galen) Brantley (SoHi's defensive and offensive coordinators, respectively) are as hard as it gets to play for. I hear them yell a lot, but I can't think of an instance where they've had to get on Jon. He just knows where to go, even in a complex blocking scheme like we run."
Verhelst wasn't able to play football until he got to high school he was always too big for Pop Warner's size restrictions but Truesdell said he was interested in football even as a seventh-grader, and Verhelst put in the time, attending camps every summer, and picked things up fast.
The hard work paid off as Verhelst was named a first-team all-Northern Lights Conference and first-team small schools all-state performer at tackle.
"I've always liked (playing on the line)," Verhelst said. "I knew I couldn't play anything else, but I've enjoyed it."
Truesdell said Verhelst's laid-back demeanor was a good fit for the Stars.
"You definitely need the lead-by-example types," Truesdell said. "It's nice to have captains that are hootin' and hollerin', but you need the lead-by-example types. Jon didn't say a whole lot, but when he did speak, people listened, and his actions are ones we hope other players emulate."
Verhelst is just as solid in the classroom, where he maintains a 3.6 grade point average and is a member of the National Honor Society. Verhelst said his favorite subject is math, and he's hoping to be able to turn his love of numbers and of sports into a career in sports management.
Verhelst would like to play college football and is looking into opportunities to pursue that goal next year.
If that doesn't pan out, Verhelst said he'd like to go to Kent State, following in the footsteps of his older sister, Abby.
"I'm hoping he can find a place to play college ball," Truesdell said. "I'd really like to see him take it to the next level, and I know he can play there."
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