Ronan Keenan is growing on and off the ice. The sophomore at High School South started his high school ice hockey career as a 6-foot-1 freshman wing last year on the WW-P co-op team. He’s an imposing 6-5 center now, and the height is an advantage in every department except one.
“I don’t want to keep buying more equipment,” Keenan said.
Keenan has also been growing in his role with WW-P. Last year, he could focus his on-ice energy on developing into a scoring threat that provided 22 goals and 18 assists on a team loaded with senior leaders.
“A big part of that comes from captain last year, David Corell,” Keenan said. “I wouldn’t have had success without him creating, especially on the power play. We had a great class with Dan Wang and Tyler Shankoff. The big thing with our seniors last year was they were a strong leadership group. They allowed us to find our roles.”
He never anticipated being such a major contributor in his first season. “I told my coach I’d be happy to hit 10 goals and 10 assists,” Keenan said. “Things clicked. I was putting up a ton of points… A lot of it comes from having the depth around me. We had a really good senior class and they helped.”
They’ve graduated after going 11-10-4 and earning the No. 16 seed for the Public A state tournament. It’s left a WW-P team with just three seniors and a bevy of young talent like Keenan.
“Most of the players that played last year graduated out,” said James Nobilio, the first-year head coach of WW-P after coaching Steinert last year. “I think as a team they lost seven or eight seniors, five or six of which played a lot.”
It leaves space for leadership from some younger players, and Keenan is growing into that role. He’s trying a different approach to this season.
“As assistant captain, I have to be one of the leaders for the team,” he said. “I can’t be goofing around like last year.
“I like to think I’ve learned over the years how to be a leader,” he added. “I’ve seen a lot of good players. Colm Trainor from Princeton, he’s a great captain. He was on my travel team. With him and Tyler Shankoff, I took the serious qualities of both of them and tried to merge it with my goofy side.”
The team opened with a 2-1-1 record: a 3-1 win over Tom’s River East in the season opener on Nov. 26; a 7-0 loss to Notre Dame on Nov. 27; a 3-0 win against Lawrence on Nov. 30, and a 1-1 tie against Robbinsville on Dec. 4.
Keenan centers the WW-P first line that also has new junior Valentin Aleynik and team captain Anuj Dutta.
Aleynik moved from New York and made an instant impact with two goals in the win over Lawrence thanks to the first shutout of the season for sophomore goalie Alec Doody.
“I knew we were going to have younger kids this year,” Keenan said. “I thought offense would be a bit of a struggle. I thought our defense would be good. The freshmen we have are talented. One put up a hat trick in a preseason scrimmage. Having Valentin come in was huge. He’s one of the more skilled players I’ve ever played with. I’m looking forward to having him on my line for another year.”
‘West Windsor hasn’t had a lot of super powered years. I think this year will be a culture change and teams will start looking at us differently.’
Keenan expects his own offense to kick into gear soon. He opened the season with four points in the first four games—a goal in the Toms River game, two assists in the win over Lawrence, and one against Robbinsville. He started the year a bit unlucky by hitting almost a dozen posts, each time drawing an audible scream of frustration.
“I think the biggest thing is to keep shooting,” Keenan said. “Eventually the shots will go off the post and in, not off the post and out.”
Once Keenan’s scoring returns to its usual level, WW-P figures to be an even more dangerous team.
“It’s just a matter of time and him improving and working with his teammates and the more rapport they build with each other, the better they’ll be,” Nobilio said, adding that he has liked what he has seen early otherwise. He’s found a versatile skater who can contribute at both ends of the ice.
“Ronan is a very talented player,” Nobilio said. “It’s obvious watching him on the ice. He’s 6-5. You can’t teach height. He’s an intimidating player. He makes good decision and he’s smart. He’s one of the big voices on the team.”
Keenan credits his versatility to switching positions frequently coming up through the hockey ranks. He started out as a defenseman, then switched to wing when he moved to the peewee level. He moved back to defense for bantam, and now slid to center for high school after adjusting to playing wing a year ago.
“Honestly, I’ve been so all over, it wasn’t that hard,” Keenan said. “The biggest difference was knowing I had to skate more and skate faster.”
His first year of high school hockey served as an important lesson in adjusting to the physicality of that level. It’s something he can help this year’s freshmen with after going through it himself.
“A big part of last year was adjusting to playing bigger stronger kids,” Keenan said. “Playing defense helped me understand how to use my body. It helped me adjust to playing against high school kids.”
Keenan has continued to grow through the spring, and in the fall he played for the Mercer Chiefs U-15 AAA team. It also helped Keenan to have an older brother, P.J., who was a goalie at Lawrence High. He’d grown up seeing his brother’s experiences.
“I used to go to all the games,” Keenan said. “I knew what I was getting myself into. A lot of them don’t have that older influence. I can understand their struggles. They have the ability to overcome it by the time we get down the stretch with counties and states, and they’ll be producing.”
“When I was 8 or 9, I was playing with 12-13 year olds so I didn’t look that big,” Keenan said. “Once I started playing with my own age, I was one of the tallest players.”
Now he stands out for his height and his play. He’s hoping to help WW-P stand out in the Colonial Valley Conference.
“I think this team has the potential to do a lot of things,” Keenan said. “We have the skill and work ethic to be as good as we want to be.”
This year’s WW-P co-op team is heavy on players from High School North. The third year of the schools playing together has gotten off to an optimistic start.
“If it was separated, South probably wouldn’t have a team,” Keenan said. “North has some talented kids so I’m happy we’re merged.”
Keenan sees a bright future ahead. He isn’t looking past this season, but with only three or four seniors, the team could be a year away from being something even more special.
“West Windsor hasn’t had a lot of super powered years,” Keenan said. “I think this year and next year will be a culture change for this entire team and teams will start looking at us differently.”
Nobilio thinks WW-P is one of the teams in the middle of a CVC that has some good top-end teams and some teams that will struggle. He sees WW-P’s effort making the difference in where they finish in the CVC.
“It takes time,” Nobilio said. “They’re all willing to learn so that’s always a positive. Every player on the ice wants to improve and you can’t ask for more than that. The guys are willing to put in the time so far and we have to continue with that mentality.”