The CIF-Metro Conference roller hockey circuit scored major prestige points when Hilltop High School alumnus Kekoa Latimore won a silver medal with the Team USA junior men’s squad at this summer’s Federation of International Roller Sports (FIRS) world championship tournament in Roccaraso, Italy.
Latimore played CIF hockey for the Lancers for parts of four seasons, winning two league championship titles. He earned something much more meaningful at the June 28 to July 9 tournament in Europe.
“FIRS was incredible,” he said. “To be honest, I’m still trying to get over that I was over there and playing for my country. It’s something I had always wanted to do ever since I found out that there was a Team USA in roller hockey. It was nothing like I had experienced in all of my life.”
Latimore’s journey to Italy came about through much self-sacrifice. He worked at a local department store while also attending classes at Southwestern College. Twice each week, he commuted to Corona to practice and play for the Corona Junior Ducks Midget AAA (18-under) travel team.
It was through his association with the Junior Ducks, especially coach Mishka Drury, that doors opened for him at qualifying tournaments and eventually led to his invitation to play for the 19-under Team USA squad. Drury, a member of Team Canada’s senior men’s team, introduced Latimore to Keith Noll, the Amateur Athletic Union’s hockey chair, and also helped prepare him skill-wise for FIRS.
Latimore was one of only two Californians named to the team and the only player from San Diego County.
Latimore did not disappoint his teammates and was not disappointed by the experience, which he alternately described as “amazing” and “incredible.”
He said the high level of play demanded of him at the international level challenged every ounce of his competitive nature.
“That was probably the best hockey I had ever played in my life,” he said.
Latimore served the role of a stay-at-home defenseman for Team USA. The Americans won their opening five games in the 13-team tournament before suffering a defeat at the hands of the Czech Republic in the championship game.
“We each had our jobs and roles to play on the team,” Latimore said. “My job was being a stay-at-home defenseman, take care of my own first and then make solid passes up to our forwards.”
Latimore didn’t have the glory job of scoring goals but may have played one of the more crucial roles by helping set scoring chances in motion.
He estimates he averaged about two assists per game.
“I just wanted to keep working hard and try to be a leader on the team,” he said.
Los Altos’ Sam Poyer joined Latimore as the only other Californian on the team. The remainder of the Americans’ roster was comprised of players from Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Colorado and Louisiana.
Poyer played a forward position and hooked up with Latimore on a couple of goals scored in Team USA’s round-robin game against Brazil.
This year’s American squad featured just three returners on its 15-man roster. Jordan Nixdorf (Brownstown Township, Mich.) and Garth Penman (Littleton, Colo.) were among that returning class. Nixdorf, a forward, served as team captain while Penman was the team’s assistant captain.
Nixdorf and Kenneth Tencza (Naples, Fla.) ranked as the team’s leading scorers while Shane Irwin (West Seneca, N.Y.) and Carl Weedman (Cincinnati, Ohio) shared the goaltending duties. Weedman, like Nixdorf, was a returner from Team USA’s silver-medal finish in 2010.
Latimore roomed with Nixdorf while in Italy.
“Jordan was one of the best captains I have ever been around,” Latimore said. “He had a really big role to fill both on and off the rink. He knew how to handle the pressure and manage the team. He was a great leader. Next year’s tournament is in Colombia and they are thinking of making it an under-20 tournament. I’m hoping to get an opportunity to play in it again next year. I would hope to be an assistant captain or maybe even a captain.”
Roccaraso is located about a two-hour bus ride from Rome in a mountain region. Prior to the actual start of the 13-nation tournament on July 4, the American group toured Vatican City and Rome.
Latimore, who is Catholic, was most impressed by the church architecture in Italy. “It was amazing to see how much they respected their faith,” he said.
After being exposed to all the traffic and honking cars in Rome, the mountain scenery and quiet in Roccaraso turned out to be very relaxing, Latimore said.
“I think that helped us get our heads together and focused for the tournament,” he said.
With such a short time to assemble a team on the floor, the ability to come together as a cohesive unit often determines whether teams will be successful or not in a major international tournament such as FIRS.
“It was very different,” Latimore said. “The East Coast plays a little different from the West Coast. What I got from playing for the Ducks was a lot of control and patience. The East Coast has a lot of speed. Honestly, I had never seen anyone skate that fast before. What helped us come together as a team and be successful was taking elements of the different styles and making them work for us. Being from the West Coast, I thought I contributed a lot.”
Latimore said it didn’t take the team very long at all to bond. There were obvious opportunities to experience nightlife in Rome, such as going out for pizza, as well as group sightseeing outings.
But Latimore said the best bonding experience took place after the team’s first practice in Roccaraso.
“After practice, we all got dressed to go out on the town for a little nightlife, but on our way, we passed the rink and saw that it was still open. We went inside and asked the manager if we could get on the floor for just a little while. He said we could. We all got our gear and all 15 of us got out on the floor and had an informal scrimmage. It was something spontaneous and turned out to be a lot of fun.”
The breakneck speed at which the game is played at the international level forced Latimore to employ everything he had absorbed about the game since he began playing it in childhood.
“Our guys were skating so fast that I had to make my passes to them as quickly as I could,” he said.
The tournament was divided into three groups for round-robin play. Team USA drew Brazil, Colombia and Germany in Group B. The Americans won all three games, defeating Brazil, 7-1, Colombia, 6-4, and Germany 6-2.
The U.S. team drew a rematch against Colombia in the quarterfinals, winning 4-1 to set up a semifinal encounter against France.
Latimore called the Yanks’ 2-0 victory over the French “probably the best hockey we played in the whole tournament.”
“We all played with heart,” he said. “We became a family and were really close. I mean, you woke up with the guys, you ate with the guys, you did everything with the team. We all wanted to win and we all worked hard for our teammates. We all were there for the same reason.”
Though the championship game did not go in the Americans’ favor, that did not in any way diminish the impact the runner-up finish had on the team.
The fans took care of that.
“It was unreal just seeing the crowd and hearing them chant your name and U-S-A,” Latimore said. “It had always been my goal to play for Team USA. Just to actually play for Team USA and for us to get to the championship game was the most amazing part. I was speechless.”
Latimore promptly celebrated stateside by winning fastest skater honors in the Midget Platinum Division at the NARCh Finals (July 15-31) in Estero, Fla. The NARCh Finals are recognized as the top amateur inline hockey championship tournament in the world.
Latimore said winning the fastest skater award vindicated a lot of hard work on his part. “It felt so amazing,” he said. “I had been training so hard for FIRS and NARCh. I went to my old high school and did a lot of stair climbing and conditioning. It was an accomplishment I was really proud of.”
The Junior Ducks, who lost in overtime in the semifinals at the Western Inline Hockey Association finals in June, took the tough road at the NARCh Finals, dropping three closely fought decisions to teams that eventually competed in the medal round.
“We lost all four of our games but we kept up with the other teams,” Latimore said.
The Ducks lost 3-1 to the Colorado Kodiaks (the eventual fourth-place finisher), 4-3 to Tour Excitement 92 from New York (the silver medalist) and 6-4 to FTB from Michigan (the gold medalist).
Latimore had to cut his stay in Florida by a day after hearing news that a former Hilltop teammate, Corey Garvin, had succumbed to a childhood illness. Memorial services for Garvin, 21, took place Aug. 6 at Glen Abbey. Garvin died on July 30.
“We still had a day of down time after we finished our games at NARCh but I decided to leave a day early, “ Latimore said. “I wanted to be there for the memorial service.”
Latimore had known Garvin since their youth playing days at Chula Vista RollerSkateLand. As a 5-year-old, Latimore can still remember his former friend, then 8, showcasing his skills at the now closed rink.
“When I got to Hilltop, I looked forward to renewing my hockey playing days with him,” Latimore said.
The two played one season together on the Hilltop team — Latimore’s freshman year and Garvin’s senior year.
Former Bonita Vista standout Kelly Nash took a quick trip back to Chula Vista from her final semester at the University of Wisconsin to attend Garvin’s services.
Nash, the top female inline player to ever grace the floor in the CIF-Metro Conference, has won two NCAA Division I ice hockey championships with the Badgers. She was among several former friends of Garvin who traveled from out of the area to attend the Aug. 6 memorial service, which served as a bittersweet reunion.
“It was bittersweet but it was amazing,” Latimore said. “It was great to see everyone one last time. After high school, people move out of town or stop playing hockey. When I first found out, it hurt a lot. But to see everyone coming together made it easier to deal with. Even though we hadn’t talked to one another in a long time, we could share all the great times we had with our friend.”
FIRS Inline Hockey World Championship
Czech Republic 12, Team USA 1
Semifinals: Team USA 2, France 0
Quarterfinals: Team USA 4, Colombia 1
Round-robin: Team USA finishes 3-0 with victories against Brazil (7-1), Colombia (6-4) and Germany (6-2)
Team USA 3, Canada 2
Semifinals: Team USA 6, Spain 0
Quarterfinals: Team USA 3, Czech Republic 2
Round-robin: Team USA finishes 3-1 with victories against Australia (3-0), Finland (5-1), Italy (5-1) and a 4-2 tie-breaker loss to Canada
Bronze medal game
Team USA 9, Canada 5
Semifinals: Czech Republic 6, Team USA 2
Quarterfinals: Team USA 6, Switzerland 5
Round-robin: Team USA finishes 2-1 with victories against Mexico (9-3) and France (4-2) and a loss to Italy (4-1).
Note: The Czech Republic defeated Italy, 3-2, in the gold medal game