By: Marissa McCardell
Sophomore John Witwer found the skates and the rink early on in his life. While the Golden, CO native had a mother who knew the ice rink better than the average joe, Witwer had no intentions on playing hockey in college; that is until he stepped foot in Oxford, MS.
Witwer grew up about 20 miles west of Denver with a mom who was an elite figure skater. Despite his mom, and a grandmother who coached the Olympic figure skater Ashley Wagner, Witwer said he never felt pressured to touch the ice. And in fact started playing hockey at the age of 10 which is later than when most kids learn how to play the game.
“The first few years I played recreationally and then when I turned about 13 or 14, I started playing travel,” Witwer said. “I played club all the way till high school and played the first year of high school and then after that I played for my school team.”
Once Witwer decided ice hockey was something he wanted to pursue, he didn’t let the changing seasons stop him from getting better, especially with the help of his mom right by his side.
“Starting from when I was like 10 years old, I skated basically year round. It’s just one of those things you have to do consistently. As you grow and start to get stronger, if you have a solid base and fundamentals, it starts to come naturally to you,” said Witwer. “It definitely helped having my mom. We’d go out and skate all the time.”
When Witwer reached the age of having to choose between colleges, Ole Miss wasn’t exactly on his radar, until a friend on the team invited him to the Ole Miss prospect camp. After the camp, Witwer realized that Oxford felt like home.
“I figured I’d check it out and came down here and I fell in love with the place. I love the big school environment, the SEC, and the chance to play hockey just kind of sold me,” said Witwer.
Despite Witwer finding his way from Colorado and other players coming from all over the nation, the Rebels locker room quickly adjusted and seemed to get along right away with all having a common passion of playing hockey.
“There’s no group that I have ever been a part of that’s quite as close as a hockey team. And that was such a big thing when I came down here because you know coming from Colorado I didn’t know many people,” Witwer said. “But you know you walk into that locker room where you all share that common background of hockey.”
With this being Witwer’s second year of playing for the Ole Miss hockey team and having won their first SECHC Championship last year beating Arkansas, their goals as a team have heightened. Nonone expected the Rebels to finish the way they did last season. And that has only added fuel to the fire of finishing nothing other than No. 1 for this coming season.
“They were a very, very good team. On paper they were better than us for sure. Very skilled and a ton of great players and well coached. But we all had confidence about it. All the guys top to bottom of the lineup knew we had that,” Witwer said. “I don’t think there’s any reason we shouldn’t repeat. And to just keep doing the same thing, to keep rolling.”
But that second SECHC Championship won’t be anything like a walk in the park. During the season, the Rebels have to travel about an hour away to their skating rink in Olive Branch, MS, usually not getting a practice slot till about 9:15 p.m. After skating for an hour and a half, the players then head back to Oxford, not getting home until midnight.
“Last year we did back to back, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. You just wake up, do what you need to do to recover and then we’re right back at it again,” Witwer said. “We’ll do film sessions and team meetings throughout the week, especially if we have a big game coming up.”
Despite the grueling practices, the intense games and all that comes in between, Witwer has learned that when he puts on that Ole Miss jersey, he not only plays for the number on the back, but plays for his teammates and the rest of the University of Mississippi.
“It’s really an honor to represent the university. You know we have such a proud athletic tradition here. People care so much about sports here. After we won the SEC last year they were so excited and seeing the excitement around campus was so special,” Witwer said. “Everytime I put on that jersey it means so much to me.”