‘Hockey cocktail:’ Maryville, Alcoa put rivalry aside on ice
By David Cobb | (email@example.com)
FARRAGUT — For the first time since 2003, neither Maryville nor Alcoa were able to bring home a state championship in football, the area’s most famous contact sport.
Adding to that, the rigors of the postseason have dropped nearly all of Blount County’s basketball teams out of state title contention with the exception of the Maryville boys and Alcoa girls.
Yet hope resounds from another source — with five young men playing a less familiar sport — that a title could soon be on its way to the county.
The Knoxville Knights high school hockey team and its five Blount County skaters will take the ice at Farragut’s Icearium at 8:10 a.m. and 3:15 p.m. today in the first round of a two-day tournament that will decide the winner of Tennessee’s Blue Division High School Hockey League.
The state champion will be crowned from a field of eight teams from as far away as Memphis after Sunday afternoon’s 1:25 p.m. championship match between the winners of two four-team pools.
But for the Knights team captains Aaron Liner, a junior at Alcoa and Matt VanWinkle, a senior at Maryville, just the opportunity to compete in the tournament is significant on its own.
After suffering through two seasons where they won a combined two games, the duo that attends rival high schools accounts for 20 of 41 goals for their team which features a mixture of players hailing from various high schools outside the Knoxville city limits.
“I think it’s kind of cool,” VanWinkle said. “Especially because he comes from Alcoa and I come from Maryville. It’s just kind of weird that they put two rival schools together.”
Though outside of the rink one is a Rebel and the other a Tornado, VanWinkle and Liner have found common ground in devoting their lives to a sport that is relatively unknown in their football-crazed communities.
Jacob Adam, Jacob Givens, and Austin Starrit also attend Maryville and play for the Knights.
“People are like ‘come on, Maryville is about football, don’t play hockey,’” VanWinkle explained. “But you get used to it after a while. They’re kind of growing on it.”
“My friends just want to come and see me fight, which doesn’t happen,” Liner said. “But that’s what they want to see.”
Fights are uncommon on the high school hockey scene — at least compared to the professional ranks — but the physical brutality of the sport takes its toll.
Aaron’s mom, Dawn, is the team manager of the Knights. She said Alcoa football coach Gary Rankin has expressed his amazement at the rigors of hockey.
“My boys play four games in a weekend, and if they’re on this team and traveling they can play five in a weekend,” Dawn Liner said. “Usually Monday morning — I call it the hockey cocktail — they’ll go out the door with Gatorade and Advil.”
If a player competes both in the high school league and on a travel team, an occurrence which is fairly common, they will typically be on the ice 13 out of 14 days.
“You get rid of your social life,” Aaron Liner said with a smirk. “You go home, do homework, come to the rink, sleep, and that’s about it. It gets tough sometimes.
“But it’s not harder than guys playing football.”
VanWinkle stands at 5-foot-7 when not on skates. Liner towers over his teammate from Maryville, but has still suffered four concussions.
“Those hits, they’re big,” said Knights coach Robert Crockett. “I wouldn’t want to sit out there and take those hits. So they’ve got to have a ton of heart and passion for the game to keep on going.”
For Liner and VanWinkle the hits have become a part of life. Both hope to play collegiately even if requires a few more ‘hockey cocktails.’
But for now the focus stays on the immediate future: the chance to win a state championship.
“Three out of the five days of the week we’re ragging on each other and I’m saying ‘No Maryville is better than Alcoa,’” VanWinkle said. “But then we come to the rink and act as a team, as one. So that’s pretty fun.”