Garhett Kaegi grew up watching the Verona boys hockey program consistently reach new heights, setting standards of success for future groups to emulate.
This week, the Wildcats' senior goalie will have an opportunity to help lead Verona back to those heights, starting with a WIAA state quarterfinal matchup against Green Bay Notre Dame at 12:15 p.m. Thursday.
“It feels like a dream come true to play at state,” Kaegi said. “I was watching this program for a long time and watching those other guys make it, and they really served as an inspiration to me. It’s an honor to possibly be an inspiration to the next generation of Wildcats.”
When Kaegi entered the Verona program as a freshman in 2015, the team was coming off a run of three consecutive state berths that was capped in 2014 by the program's first, and only, state championship.
While the Wildcats continued to finish at or near the top of the Big Eight Conference over the last four years, including its current run of back-to-back conference titles, Thursday marks the program’s first return to state since winning the championship.
“Being able to reach a state tournament is great. All the guys and the community are excited,” Verona head coach Joel Marshall said.
“It was a goal we set early this season after losing in the sectional final last year. Nobody on this team has ever been to state. It’s something where they watched those teams go just before they got here, and it’s something they’ve strived for.”
For Kaegi, that road began when he first began playing hockey at the age of eight.
Despite developing into one of the top goalies in the state over the last two seasons, Kaegi began his hockey career at forward and didn’t make the move to the net until a year before starting high school.
“I played forward for most of my childhood and switched to defense when I reached the Squirt level,” Kaegi said. “My final Pee Wee year, we didn’t have a goalie, so I just hopped in and I ended up really loving it.”
After spending two years with the junior varsity and being given a chance to develop in front of the net, Kaegi took over the varsity starting role as a junior last season.
Success didn’t come immediately that year — for Kaegi or the Wildcats.
Verona dropped four of its first five games before the team started to come together at the season's midway point. From there, the Wildcats closed the season with wins in 10 of their last 14 games, earning a trip to the sectional final before being ousted by Sun Prairie.
“Last year, there was some inexperience and maybe (Kaegi) didn’t have the instant success he was expecting,” Marshall said. “He stayed the course, and the team in front of him really developed a lot of confidence in him.”
That confidence carried itself into this season, where Kaegi has improved in nearly every statistical category — including goals-against average (2.44 per game) and save percentage (.890), while helping the Wildcats to a 20-3-3 record that includes a 13-0-1 mark over their last 14 games.
Off the ice, Kaegi has worked to embrace his role as one of the team's senior leaders.
Despite being a self-proclaimed “shy guy throughout high school,” Kaegi has made a point to speak up at key times and to help out wherever he’s needed.
“He’s definitely the outspoken senior on the team,” Marshall said. “He’s probably the most vocal leader in the locker room. He leads team meetings and he’ll be one of the first ones to speak up and try to right the ship.”
That ability to right the ship showed itself most last Saturday, when Verona faced off with Badger South Conference champion Madison Edgewood with a berth to state on the line.
After the Wildcats cruised to two relatively straight forward wins in their first two playoff games, they faced a tough battle with the Crusaders.
Tied at 3-3 heading into the third period, Kaegi made 14 saves without allowing a goal throughout the third and two overtimes before Wildcats senior Aidan Schmitt netted the game-winner to seal Verona’s return to the Dane County Coliseum.
With that goal in their rear-view mirror, the Wildcats have now focused on Green Bay Notre Dame, and the dream of bringing a second title back to Verona.
“The team is feeling really loose now that we’ve actually made it to state,” Kaegi said. “Obviously we want to win, but now we’re able to play the game how we want to play it and just go for the glory.”