Baseball is the sport Madison West senior Drake Baldwin plans to play at Missouri State University.
But Baldwin, who started playing hockey when he was 5 years old and taking skating lessons when he was 6, clearly possesses the skating and stick skills that have made him one of the state’s best boys hockey players.
Baldwin — a 6-foot, 210-pound forward and one of the state’s top goal scorers and point producers — is among eight finalists for the Wisconsin Hockey Coaches Association state player of the year and was named a first-team selection and the Most Valuable Player on the All-City team.
Despite his obvious skill level, Baldwin believes his biggest improvement during high school hockey has come from his understanding of the game. That, he said, was aided by the advice of younger level coaches and Regents varsity coach Steve Libert, who emphasized decision-making on the ice.
“I think I’m playing smarter,” Baldwin said. And that allows him to play faster, he said.
Baldwin owns a hard shot, but reading the action remains key to Baldwin’s goal-scoring and points prowess for Madison West (16-6-2).
Baldwin has scored 46 goals, two behind state leader Ryan Wink of the La Crosse Aquinas co-op. Baldwin stood fifth in points with 70, trailing Riley Jelinek (79) of the Sauk Prairie co-op, Madison Memorial’s Parker Lindauer (78), Wink (75) and Madison Edgewood’s Thomas Weis (71), according to WisconsinPrepHockey.net.
“I think the game has slowed down for me after playing (in high school) for four years,” Baldwin said. “I can read stuff a little earlier, which allows me to get into open spots and find my teammates.”
In turn, Baldwin’s ability to move into those open spaces also makes it easier for teammates to find him. He credits his teammates for his scoring success.
“He reads the game pretty well,” Libert said. “He doesn’t chase the game. He lets the game come to him.”
That might mean poke-checking the puck from an opponent and taking off down ice on a breakaway; gravitating to an open area for a scoring opportunity; or seeking out an open teammate and looking for an assist.
“You have to read off Drake,” Libert said.
Libert has watched the Regents gain trust in each other as the season progressed. Libert came to the realization in December that the Regents had a high ceiling and could achieve more with additional attention to detail and a faster pace of play.
“It’s kind of a strange team this year,” Libert said. “We, obviously, have Drake, who is a pretty skilled player. We also have a mix of talent, all across the board. They do get along great. The team gets along from top to bottom. Drake and the other captains (senior forward Felix Jiang and junior defenseman Devin Huie) have helped develop a good culture. It helps us play like a team.”
The Regents, 5-1-1 in their past seven games, finished third in the Big Eight Conference.
The third-seeded Regents — led on defense by sophomore goaltender Ian Hedican (2.49 goals per game allowed) — open WIAA postseason play at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Madison Ice Arena.
Madison West faces the winner of Tuesday night’s game between No. 6 Madison Memorial and No. 11 Madison La Follette/Madison East.
The sectional’s strength — led by top-seeded and sixth-ranked Verona and second-seeded and 10th-ranked Sun Prairie — is not lost on Libert, whose team earned honorable-mention recognition in this week’s state coaches’ poll on WisconsinPrepHockey.net.
“The sixth seed could come out of our sectional and it wouldn’t be an upset,” Libert said.
Baldwin has centered a line with Jiang (nine goals, 14 assists, 23 points) and usually sophomore forward Alex Duchemin (12-15-27), though freshman Eric Horein (15-9-24) also has played on Baldwin’s line. Senior Kaleb Kohn (11-15-26), who normally centers the second line, often plays on the power play with Baldwin.
“These are the last competitive hockey games of my life,” said Baldwin, who will play catcher for the Regents’ baseball team in the spring, prior to playing baseball at Missouri State. “It’s kind of scary to think about right now. I know all the seniors will play their best. It’s the last time to play with these guys.
“I think we will play our best hockey of the season. And if we do play our best hockey, I think we can beat any team in our sectional. I have never made it to the Coliseum (at the Alliant Energy Center for the state tournament) in my four years. That would be a huge accomplishment if we got there.”