MATTAWAN — When this season’s South Central High School Hockey League schedule was announced, twins Kaleb and Zach Kruzich immediately circled Feb. 15.
That’s the red-letter day their Mattawan Wildcats face off against the Kalamazoo Eagles, coached by their uncle, Matt Kruzich.
“When Matt told me he was coaching the Eagles (three years ago), he said, ‘I don’t even want you to look at me (during the game),’” Zach Kruzich laughed.
“‘I don’t even want to talk to you at the rink,’ which is perfectly fine by me.”
Adding to the family dynamics, the twins’ father, Bart, is assistant coach with Wildcats’ head coach, Chris Dienes.
“We always really get up for that game, for sure,” Bart Kruzich said. “They beat us last year, so we definitely remember that. It’s always a big game.”
Off the ice, it is back to family.
“We all live on the farm, so we’re all very close and see each other every day,” Matt Kruzich said.
In addition, Dienes and Matt Kruzich are roommates.
“Out of hockey, most of the topics are about fantasy football than hockey,” Kaleb Kruzich said.
Hockey aside, the twins are, so far, the last of four generations of Wildcats.
Their great-grandmother, the late Emma Papierz Kruzich; their grandfather John Kruzich, and their dad all graduated from Mattawan High School.
As for hockey, “We were born into it,” laughed Zach Kruzich.
Their dad played for the Junior K-Wings from 1991-93.
Uncle Matt played professionally for the United Hockey League Kalamazoo Wings in 2002-03.
Oldest brother Jake also played for the Wildcats before continuing as a student only at Michigan State.
Dienes, in his second year as the Wildcats’ head coach, also brings a wealth of hockey experience to the team.
After playing at Western Michigan University from 2013-17, he played professionally for the ECHL’s Adirondack Thunder and Jacksonville Icemen, and then with the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose in 2017-18.
The twins figure this is their last year of organized hockey — they are not planning to play in college — so they are going all out.
Kaleb is a left-handed defenseman wearing No. 13, and Zach a right-handed forward sporting No. 19.
That is the easiest way the tell them apart.
“My grandparents can never tell who’s who on the ice,” Kaleb said. “They need our numbers. A lot of the fans are the same. They need a roster to differentiate.”
Dienes said he also has trouble telling the twins apart.
“Sometimes I get caught yelling at one and it’s not the right one, but I can tell them apart on the ice easy,” he said.
The twins complement each other during games, but practices are quite a bit different.
“I’m always like, ‘Can I skip you so I can go against Kaleb?’” Zach said. “In games, we’re just teammates.”
Kaleb also looks forward to practices, saying he and his brother grew up competing against each other.
“We definitely try our hardest against each other in practice,” he said. “Definitely some slashes, some punches thrown on the ice, just like quick stuff. It happens. Brothers being brothers, especially when we’re the same age.”
Dienes and Bart Kruzich have an understanding when it comes to coaching.
“He does a good job,” Dienes said. “He allows me to do the coaching of them for the most part. It’s a good mix of me being bad cop sometimes and him being good cop, which is good for him as a dad.”
Bart Kruzich said he talked at length with Mattawan athletic director Chad Yager and Dienes before agreeing to become assistant coach.
“For the most part, I don’t really coach a lot to my own kids. That was an agreement I made with Chris and Chad Yager,” Bart Kruzich said.
“I’m probably harder on my own kids than I am on the others. They’re used to it. It’s been like that since they were 6 years old, and now they’re 18.”
So far, the Wildcats have a 7-4-2 record, 5-1 in the league, where they and Jackson Lumen Christi are the only teams who are not cooperative programs. The co-ops are the Portage Muskies, Kalamazoo United, Kalamazoo Eagles, Kalamazoo Blades, Capital City, and Eastside.
“Our numbers have actually grown over the years,” Dienes said of his team. “When I first started as an assistant (two years ago), we had 21 kids try out.
“Last year we had 39, and this year we had 40. I think that number is going to continue to grow over the years, so it’s exciting.”
The Wildcats won their first playoff game in 10 years last season and hope to build on that.
“The twins and our senior leaders – Colin Swintz, Colin O’Reilly, Aidan Warn and Niko Lewis – have really led the charge,” Dienes said.
Juniors are Colin Porn, Matt Novak, Landis Mills, Jake Mandeville, Gavin Mckeeby, Brody Schripsema, Nathan Whitehead, Nicholas Amos and Edmond Lafleche. Sophomores are Dom Vezeau, Carson Mattern, Carson Smith, Caden Byers, Kibwe Weaver and Brayden Lewis.
Zach Kruzich said most of his teammates have played together since youth hockey which, along with being at the same school, is a big advantage.
Another strength is team depth, Bart Kruzich said.
“This year, we have 13 forwards and six defensemen, and we feel like we can put any of those 13 forwards out there and we’re competitive with all 13 of those kids,” he said.
“When we get into a good game, we can roll three and one-half lines and kind of tire teams out. Our talent pool is pretty deep.”
While the twins are enjoying their senior year on the ice, neither plans to continue hockey in college. Both hope to attend Miami of Ohio, joining their sister Katie and leaving their parents as empty nesters.
Meanwhile, hockey tends to be the topic of the day at home.
“After games, we go home and (Dad) loves watching (tapes of) the games, sometimes a little too much, but we talk about it,” Zach Kruzich said.
Bart Kruzich said his wife, Kristen, is a super fan.
“I give her a lot of credit,” he said. “She’s always been awesome at really encouraging the team, especially the twins.
“She doesn’t pay attention to only her kids; she really been supportive of the whole team.”
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Twins Zach (left) and Kaleb Kruzich take a moment for a photo during a Mattawan game night. (2) Kaleb Kruzich winds up to shoot. (3) Mattawan hockey head coach Chris Dienes. (4) Zach Kruzich, left, stands with dad and assistant coach Bart Kruzich and brother Kaleb. (Photos by Avian Townley.)
Twenty years ago, Kwin Morris and Jeff Guy were teammates on an MHSAA Quarterfinal-qualifying hockey team.
Guy even scored the winning goal in the Regional Final for Bay Area Reps, which topped Traverse City West 2-1.
This summer’s accomplishment, though, will go deeper in the history books.
Guy and Morris teamed up with Joe Lorenz to complete a dream that started a decade ago. They crossed all five of the Great Lakes on paddle boards while raising awareness and funds for water quality.
They put their balance, endurance and stick-handling skills together for the cause.
‘After 10 years and over one hundred grand raised for the lakes, it feels amazing,” Morris said. “I think the best part is knowing my kids will grow up knowing their old man did something cool for the environment in a unique way.”
It all started at a December social event in Traverse City. Guy, a financial adviser, and Morris, a middle school science teacher, had just gotten into paddle boarding when they began to wonder if they could cross Lake Michigan.
Lorenz, a personal trainer, promptly gave assurances they could — and joined them — even though he had never been on a paddle board prior to the holiday gathering.
Morris, Guy and Lorenz successfully crossed Lake Michigan in 2015, pausing in the cold of the night to look at the Northern Lights. They finished the nearly 100-kilometer journey in just under 25 hours. That accomplishment convinced them to launch Stand Up for Great Lakes, a non-profit organization to raise money and awareness for the protection of the lakes.
The trio also is supporting the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research, a non-profit housed at the University of Michigan.
“It feels amazing to have finished crossing all five lakes and complete a lifelong goal,” Guy acknowledged. “The dollars and awareness we have raised is incredible, and hopefully it continues to grow.”
Lake Huron was the toughest to cross by far, the former Reps noted. The 90-mile, 29-hour paddle brought seven hours of rain and high waves.
“Plus Joe knocked me in and Jeff fell in after catching a fish,” Morris observed.
Ontario was the team’s second-hardest challenge and the shortest paddle. Huge waves from the side all day took quite a toll on the paddlers, who were accompanied by safety boats on each crossing.
Lake Superior featured glassy water, a spectacular sunset and the paddlers pausing to conduct a ceremony over the Edmund Fitzgerald shipwreck. The northernmost Great Lake ranks as the group’s favorite.
Guy graduated from Kalkaska High School in 2003 and went on to play hockey at Hope College. He also played football, baseball and golf for the Blazers. He and his wife, Melissa, have a daughter, Emma.
Morris graduated in 2005 from Elk Rapids High School, where he also played baseball. He went on to get a teaching degree from Western Michigan University. He and his wife, Megan, have two children, Fitz and Knox. He now works for his former school district, teaching science.
The pair played for the Reps through a co-op hosted by Traverse City St. Francis that included athletes from Charlevoix, Elk Rapids, Kalkaska, Kingsley, Lake Leelanau St Mary, Mancelona and Suttons Bay. The Reps’ first coach was Michigan High School Hockey Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee Rex Luxton. He coached through 2008.
Morris and Guy look back at their high school playing days and coach with fondness.
“We had some great teams, and I think I still have the career goal record there,” Guy recalled. “Also, our coach on the Reps Rex Luxton was highly motivational to me while playing for him and later in life.”
Morris echoed Guy.
“I loved the whole experience,” Morris said. “Playing for my high school … Friday night games … school rivalries … playing for Rex Luxton … amazing friends and teammates — almost surreal that it will have been 20 years.”
The former coaching staff of the Reps are not at all surprised Morris and Guy challenged themselves to make a difference for the Great Lakes.
The coaching staff remembers Guy as a natural scorer coming through with big goals, and Morris as a strong two-way player who scored five goals in one period in Sault Ste. Marie. The past coaches also remember all the traveling the two did for practice and games because of the geographic nature of the squad.
“I had no idea they had any interest in the water kind of stuff,” Luxton said of his former players’ feat. “When I started following their bid to raise awareness, it didn’t surprise me they would attempt something like this.
“I think it illustrates how much determination they have and how much hard work they were willing to put in,” he continued. “It is just outstanding, particularly with the cold weather in the Great Lakes.”
Cody Inglis, a senior assistant director for the MHSAA, was an assistant coach for the Reps during all of Morris and Guy’s time with the co-op. He finds himself beaming with pride and happiness knowing these former players are giving back and making it a better world.
“What Jeff and Kwin have done physically and mentally to cross all of the Great Lakes on stand-up paddle boards is remarkable in itself,” Inglis pointed out. “When you add in the fact that they have put in charitable causes and the preservation of the Great Lakes as a reason for doing it – it makes it even more special.
“It’s not surprising given my recollection and remembrances of Jeff and Kwin, as they were really good hockey players and better people.”
High school hockey is where Morris and Guy’ friendship blossomed. Spending 24 or more hours together — and with Lorenz — has forged a greater lifetime bond that already had included being a part of each other’s weddings.
But they admit they had no inkling of this type of accomplishment back in high school.
“Sports were the most important thing in my life in high school,” Guy revealed. “Working really hard to win as many games as possible was the main goal – along with getting good grades and trying to get into a good college.”
But teamwork, learned on the ice and through other high school sports, can make anything possible.
“Any sport where you have to work as a team helps push yourself out of your comfort zone,” Morris concluded. “That's where the best things in life happen.”
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PHOTOS (Top) Clockwise from top left: Jeff Guy celebrates a goal while playing for Traverse Bay Reps with Kwin Morris to his left, Guy (left) and Morris (right) take a photo after one of their paddle board trips, and Morris bringing the puck up the ice for the Reps. (Middle) Guy, Morris and Joe Lorenz take a photo together on the lake shore. (Below) Morris accepts a medal during the 2004-05 season. (Photos courtesy of Jeff Guy, Kwin and Jo Morris.)