Nice article on Labate and his transition to the NCAA as an 18 year old.
Feeling the pressure, LaBate plays beyond his years. Straight out of high school, UW’s youngest forward finds spot on top line
By Kelly Erickson
Thursday, February 9, 2012 9:33 p.m.
Updated Friday, February 10, 2012 1:59:55 p.m.
Straight out of high school, Joseph LaBate embodies the youthful state of the Wisconsin men’s hockey team.Hockey is a rare beast in college athletics. Players can leave early for their shot at a professional career, but more often than not, they don’t even start their collegiate campaigns until they spend a few years playing in juniors after they graduate from high school.
But as one of Wisconsin’s youngest skaters — still only 18 years old — LaBate decided to skip those habitual years with a junior team where players generally get stronger and faster and have an opportunity to adjust for the pace of the college game.
“Everyone talks about how big of a switch it is both mentally and physically, with bigger guys and just the demand of what coaches expect from you,” LaBate said. “It’s a very big leap, and I think I’ve handled it pretty well. My family is pretty supportive of me, and obviously my teammates are too. I think I’ve handled it pretty well and keep trying to do it day by day.”
While knowing the jump would be more difficult, the Eagan, Minn., native didn’t expect to find himself consistently skating on the top line. Skating alongside sophomore forwards Mark Zengerle and Tyler Barnes, LaBate has notched five goals this season and 14 assists. His 19 points are fifth most on the team — but the most of any freshman.
While his stats could certainly be better — sitting 20 points behind team leader Zengerle, who has 39 on the season — head coach Mike Eaves has some pretty high — and tough — expectations for his youngest forward.
“We’ve got a true freshman, an 18-year-old man who’s coming out of high school, and we’ve got him on our top unit, so he’s expected to some degree to be able to put numbers on the board,” Eaves said. “We’re expecting him to be good down in his own zone. It’s like he goes from being an undergraduate to getting graduate course work in terms of where he comes from and the responsibilities that we’re giving him. It’s a lot to handle, … (but) he’s a battler.”
This “battler” attitude that Eaves describes is a quality that has led to his progression throughout the season, something his linemates can’t deny.
“It’s been tremendous growth he’s had over the year, just with his strength, his speed, his awareness out there — it’s a lot faster game; it’s a big jump,” Barnes said. “It’s a lot of little things that you can see him picking up on and seeing the ice a lot better and making plays.”
Standing tall at 6-foot-4, 195 pounds, LaBate gave UW its most recent victory by knocking in the game-winning goal with just over four minutes to go in the third period in a 3-2 victory over Alaska-Anchorage Jan. 21.
The goal certainly made LaBate stand out and served as a sort of benchmark from his progress, but when he first stepped onto the first line, it was admittedly intimidating.
“Oh yeah,” LaBate said. “I remember when I came into practice, … and I looked up and I saw I was with Zengs and Barnes on the first line, and I was like ‘holy smokes, this is a big step,’ and I just tried to focus on playing my game. I’ve just done that ever since. They’re such good linemates to have, so supportive and stuff, and we gel pretty well together.”
When deciding where to commit, LaBate was specifically looking for a school where he’d have the chance to play immediately and get as much experience as possible. For him, Wisconsin was that team — more than he even knew, at the time.
“I wasn’t expecting this big of a role right away,” LaBate said. “I’ve been really enjoying it. I’m pretty lucky to be on a team where I can play this much and have this much responsibility, so I think it’s just good for me. It’s going to benefit me in the future.”
But, he definitely had a lot to learn, specifically some little details that high school hockey just can’t provide.
“You learn a lot of little stuff,” Zengerle said. “Obviously, he’s a skilled player, and he skates well and handles the puck well and shoots well, but you learn a lot of things away from the puck and things like that, and things in the d-zone — just so many details that Coach Eaves teaches you that you wouldn’t think of before you get here.”
But with such a youthful team trying its hardest to make something out of its up-and-down season, a lot of pressure falls on LaBate and the first line as a whole. Barnes acknowledged that they are completely aware of this pressure off the ice, but on the ice, it disappears.
“There’s definitely a lot of pressure, but we don’t really let it bother us too much,” Barnes said. “We’re used to it; we just go out there and play. Once you go out on the ice you notice it. … On the ice, everything’s carefree. You’re out there just playing. He’s done a really good job this year just filling the role and he’s grown a lot over the year, and it’s been fun playing with him.”
Eaves is well aware of the amount of pressure he’s put on LaBate, but he still has some higher expectations that the freshman has yet to meet.
“We put a lot on his shoulders, but we think eventually, by sticking with him, it’ll pay off for us, Eaves said.
“I wish there was fruit on the vine right now, we’re just getting little buds on it, but the fruit’s coming. He’ll be damned good one day.”