Freshman goaltender finding his place

By Sean Neumann

After the Illini hockey team’s 6-1 win over the Chicago Jr. Bulldogs, defenseman Austin Zima yells for reporters to ask freshman goaltender Zach Danna what his nickname is before he emerges from the locker room for an interview.

“Call him Cherry!” Zima calls out again, as Danna emerges, laughing.

“Cherry?” Danna repeats. “Yeah, that’s thanks to my teammate Austin Zima.”

Danna said he received the nickname “Cherry” from Zima after his first game at Fenwick High School, where the two played together. Thanks to Zima, Danna’s nickname followed him all the way to Illinois.

“It doesn’t bother me at all,” Danna laughed. “I remember when he gave it to me, he called me ‘Cherry Danish’ because I’m soft in the center and don’t give up any rebounds.”

As Danna becomes more comfortable inside the Illini locker room, he’s already finding his comfort zone between the pipes.

Danna recorded his first collegiate win against Chicago with 29 saves on 30 shots and has only given up one goal in 80 minutes in net this season.

“When a guy plays like that, it’s hard not to notice,” said Illini head coach Nick Fabbrini, who also coached Danna and Zima at Fenwick High School in the northwest suburbs of Chicago for a season. “I know what he’s capable of. It’s just a matter of getting an opportunity.”

Danna has proved himself, sporting a 0.75 goals-against average with a 97.22 save percentage.

Although he’s played fewer minutes than the other goaltenders on the team, no other netminder has fewer than a 3.00 goals against average or higher than an 88.61 save percentage.

“Stepping up to this level, the game’s a little bit faster — not only passes and shots, but everyone skating,” Danna said.

Fabbrini said he’s happy to see the freshman growing into a role on the team and making the most of the opportunities given to him through more ice-time. But it wasn’t long ago when Fabbrini inadvertently knocked Danna out of a few games himself.

During Danna’s junior year at Fenwick, Fabbrini broke the goaltender’s finger with a hard shot in warm-ups before the Chicago Catholic Hockey League (CCHL) playoffs.

“I mean, I’ve got a bomb, but…” Fabbrini laughed. “I was just warming him up, and it was a freak thing.”

Despite joking about it two years later, Fabbrini said the two haven’t talked about the incident since it happened.

“I actually felt really bad about it when it happened,” Fabbrini said. “We didn’t really have much of a chance without him in the playoffs, and we ended up having to play a freshman in net. In college, it’s not that big of a deal, but in high school, it’s a huge difference between an 18-year-old and a 14-year-old.”

But now Danna’s the freshman in net and he’s already proving himself worthy to his head coach and the Illini fans, who gave him a standing ovation and began bowing to him after his first collegiate save on Dec. 13 against Northern Illinois — an impressive glove save on a rocket from the high slot.

“I feel like I’m starting to get in a groove,” Danna said. “That’s thanks to the guys on the team in practice who are going hard and making sure I’m pushing myself. I feel like every day I’m getting better as a goalie and a teammate.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @Neumannthehuman.