Photo courtesy of Shannon Valerio
Like a well-oiled machine, the No. 5 University of Denver Pioneers’ system of play employed by head coach Jim Montgomery is constructed from an intricate combination of details. When executed properly, the dynamic unfolds into in an esemplastic affair. As each player acquires and masters their unique role while buying into the team culture, the outcome as a collective unit is synchronous.
The roles vary, but each possesses substantial significance towards the cumulative objective. The key is for each player to embrace their position in its entirety.
Evan Ritt and Rudy Junda did not immediately obtain roles as skaters who suited up for regular game-time action. Through persistence, an unwavering work ethic, and reflection, the long-time pals and Colorado natives each earned their position among the lineup.
“I think it comes a lot with maturity,” Junda said. “At some point in their career everyone on this team was a guy that toe-dragged everybody. At a certain point you mature and realize what it is that will make you successful. I think it took me a little longer, I knew what those things were [to make him successful], but at a certain point you decide if you want to fall on your sword or be effective. You have to be really honest with yourself about what’s going to make you effective.”
Accepting the challenge of embracing and learning to thrive in a role that is tailored and suitable for an individual, opposed to trying to emulate something impervious, Ritt says, “It’s so much less glamorous, but in a way it’s so much more glamorous.”
Ritt and Junda began playing together in 2011 for the U18 Rocky Mountain Roughriders and their friendship developed thereafter. While that was the first and only season of their young careers that Ritt and Junda were teammates, their paths once again intertwined at DU. The comics took over the behind-the-scenes show, Gabbin’ With Gabe, after Gabe Levin graduated in 2016.
After playing for the New Jersey Hitmen in the Tier lll United States Premier Hockey League, Ritt was a midseason addition for the Pioneers’ 2013-14 season. Junda joined the DU roster the following year.
For Ritt, the opportunity to break into Denver’s lineup was presented earlier. With a niche at faceoffs and the vacancy of the 2016 seniors, there were exposed openings he knew he could fill.
“I went into that season thinking, ‘I’m getting into this lineup no matter what,’” Ritt said.
A right-shot center, Ritt became one of the Pioneers’ go-to faceoff guys. During his senior campaign, the Lakewood, Colo. native finished 10th in the nation and boasted a faceoff percentage of 59.5% over his 41 appearances. He registered 12 points on two goals and 10 assists.
While faceoffs aren’t necessarily a strength of Junday’s game, the current senior has followed in Ritt’s footsteps by enhancing his mentality and distinctive aspects of his skill set. With a 5-foot-11 and 196-pound frame, Junda prides himself on his physicality.
His ascension into the lineup is attributed to his reliable work ethic and utilization of his size to generate overwhelming pressure and crunching hits on the opponent. The Denver, Colo. native has compiled six points on three goals and three assists throughout 26 games played during his final season.
“He’s become an extremely vital person in our lineup every night that gives us momentum,” Montgomery said. “His shifts are important. Not only is he getting on the ice for a lot more minutes than probably he or I ever imagined, but he’s contributing during those minutes. When we’re playing in the other team’s zone he’s a big reason why.”
Ritt and Junda attribute their senior year successes to their attention and commitment to actively improving their mental game. Through journaling and meditation, the pair have deliberately strengthened their psychological capabilities.
“We’re a little bit of black sheep in the hockey community as guys who meditate, journal, and read a lot,” Ritt said. “Honestly, building these skills have helped me a ton as a person and I know that’s the same for him.
“Playing in Monty’s system, it’s easy to be successful. It’s very intense, and if you stick to its structure you will be rewarded. You have to stay focused, take care of yourself and make sure that mentally you’re prepared for that.”
Upon graduation, Ritt continued his career abroad for the Gap Rapaces in Gap, France. He has translated his successes from his senior season to his new team where he has amassed 16 points on 11 goals and five assists of the Ligue Manus regular season.
Stateside, Junda skates left-wing alongside freshmen Kohen Olischefski and Ryan Barrow. Situated as Denver’s consistent fourth line, the linemates have clicked at critical time as postseason endeavours commence.
“I think he’s [Junda] given them [Barrow and Olischefski] stability in the sense of emotional control,” Montgomery said. “He levels them out because he’s a very bright person that plays with emotion, but doesn’t get emotional. He’s a calming influence for those two. He reminds them how important it is every shift for them to be ready to go so they have that intensity, but they’re still calm. They’re making plays.”
While last season’s national championship success weighs heavy on the final outcome of this season, Junda acknowledges the danger in dwelling on the past but remains excited for his final postseason run.
“It’s hard not to think about how we did last year. There’s no one way of winning and human nature is that you’re going to try and do exactly like you did last year,” Junda said. “I’ve been thinking about that a lot, ‘what did we have going for us that made us successful last year?’ You can pick and pull things that you think are reasonably acceptable for this team. At the end of the day, it’s going to be something different for this group. No two situations are going to be the same, we’re going to be playing different teams, you don’t know what it’s going to be so I try to be ready in the moment.”
Junda and the Pioneers (18-8-8, 12-6-6-4 NCHC) host storied rival Colorado College the weekend of Friday, March 9 for the NCHC Quarterfinals. The best of three advances to St. Paul, Minn. for the remainder of the conference tournament. Puck-drop is scheduled for 7 p.m. MT.