It took a lot of seasoning, but finally a hockey season has left just the right aftertaste in the mouth of Nikiski senior Josh Pepper.
Saturday, the Bulldogs finished up the most successful season in school history by defeating Delta 5-4 in the third-place game of the Greatland Conference Tournament.
The win over Delta gave Nikiski its best finish ever in the Greatland tourney. This showing came on the heels of a 9-13 regular season in which the Bulldogs set the school record for regular-season victories.
After the momentous victory over Delta, both Pepper's coach and other coaches heaped praise on the defenseman. Pepper was named to the all-conference team.
Coach Al Anderson complimented the way his captain continued to play after getting boarded late in the game and appearing injured.
"Josh's body was beat up," Anderson said. "But he got up and got back in the game. He definitely stood up to the plate as captain and was definitely a team leader."
Of course, to Anderson, as well as to those who've followed Pepper's career, Pepper's decision to keep on playing comes as no surprise.
He's always loved hockey, a game he started playing when he was 9 years old.
Pepper really started to take the game seriously once he got to high school, putting in six months on the ice each year, then doing additional training during the summer.
Oh, sure, there were other sports like soccer, football and track and field. Pepper even won a state championship with the football team. But that couldn't shake his love of hockey.
"This is nothing against the football program, but Josh said he'd rather have four losing seasons of hockey than four winning seasons of football," said Pepper's mother, Marti. "He just loved hockey.
"I'm sure that was his way of staying positive even though the team was having a rough time."
Pepper has started at defense on the varsity since he was a freshman. He's seen some rough years with the program.
His freshman year, the team went 3-9 in the GLC and lost the fourth-place game in the conference tourney.
His sophomore year, the Bulldogs went 5-16-1 overall in the regular season and won the fourth-place game at the tournament.
Then, there was his junior year. Nikiski went just 1-11 in the GLC that year and lost both games at the conference tournament.
"Last year was just a rough year," Marti said. "Josh just said he wanted to know what it felt like to win. If this year would have went like last year, it almost would have been too much for him."
Despite the tough outcome last year, Pepper still started training for hockey all the way back in summer.
Pepper knew he would have to get in tip-top shape because defensemen at Nikiski typically don't get much rest.
"In my career, I've played a ton of whole 45-minute games," Pepper said. "An average shift is supposed to be a minute and a half, but when you have two defensemen on the team, that doesn't work."
At this year's conference tournament, the Bulldogs had three defensemen, so Pepper actually saw some rest.
But Pepper said he doesn't mind the extra work. He just said it reminds him of the countless times he slipped over to the Jason Peterson Memorial Ice Rink with friends, turned on the lights and skated around for hours.
"Energy, especially by the end of the season, isn't a problem," Pepper said. "The experience in games is better than the experience in practice.
"When you put together all the game minutes I've had in a four-year period, it makes a big difference."
Anderson said Pepper, who has never missed significant high school time with an injury, has a body that can accept punishment.
"He has a lot of staying power, and part of it is that he's such a good athlete," the coach said.
This year, Anderson gave Pepper the additional responsibility of being the captain and team leader. Pepper, who also was a captain as a junior, responded by helping to mold a positive team attitude.
"We've always been talented in the past, but we didn't pass well and play as a team," Pepper said. "Last year we started it, and this year we improved on it."
Pepper also contributed to the team off the ice. His mother said there were four or five times this year that her son raced younger teammates to school after they had missed the bus. That's because showing up late for school means no practice that night, and that disrupts team unity.
Anderson said Marti and Pepper's dad, Robert, have been invaluable to the team. Both are heavily involved with the booster club, and Marti hasn't missed a home or away game in the past three years.
The involvement started when Josh's brother, 2002 graduate Chris, played on the team. The parents said the conference tournament this year was a great way to culminate five years of hard work.
"It was the cherry on the sundae," Robert said. "I'm really proud of Josh's team, the coaches and the parents. Everybody put in so much time.
"In years past, that time hasn't shown up in the outcome of games. This year, it finally did."
Pepper also has found time to get a B average in the classroom at Nikiski, where he's the senior class secretary.
Pepper will go to the University of Alaska Anchorage next year. There, he will study architecture.
This study will coincide with the home-remodeling jobs Pepper has done the last two summers, and plans to do this summer.
Pepper works for former Nikiski coach Smith and current coach Anderson.
"I took him to Barrow to work a carpentry job last summer," Anderson said. "He's a good worker. You don't have to worry about him sitting around and not getting things done."
Work ethic is just one area that Pepper has transformed from the ice to life.
"If hockey teaches life lessons, he should excel in life just like he's succeeded on the ice," Robert said.
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.