River Dell's Freel puts college plans on ice

Hannah Clancy is a River Dell High School senior, a member of the volleyball and lacrosse teams and an intern for the winter season. The following is her third submission for publication on northjerseysports.com

River Dell senior Liam Freel is taking the Junior hockey route and will play in California after his high school graduation.

Coming off a loss in the semifinal round of the Fold Cup Tournament, the River Dell ice hockey team had regrouped and was looking to make a run in the state tournament. For the seniors like goalie and team captain Liam Freel, it was a last chance in a high school uniform to make some more lasting memories.

Sports, however, do not always follow the script that the participants are trying to write and the Golden Hawks fell in the opening round, 2-1, in a heartbreaker.

For Freel, it was disappointment that brought with it a new beginning.

Unlike most players that see their careers end at the conclusion of their senior seasons, Freel is following his dream of playing hockey after high school. Not at a college, but in the Juniors Program. Juniors is a league that allows hockey players 16-20 years old to perfect and enhance their skills so they can eventually continue their careers at the collegiate level or open a pathway to more competitive leagues.

Liam put on his first pair of ice skates at the age of two and that first pair of blades ultimately led to his life-long passion.  The two share a special connection.

Since Freel was fourteen, and first learned what Juniors was, he felt as if it was “his calling” to play rather than attend a four-year college after graduation. His end all goal is to be able to play to the highest level possible, and this year will allow him to grow and develop as a goalie.

The process of playing Juniors is just as intense as going to college, some may even argue it is harder. The first step is to be recruited or picked up by a team. There are teams all over the country. Liam was looking to play for teams in states such as North Carolina, Virginia, and even Florida.

Making a roster does not end the challenges that players like Freel face. Living arrangements are a hurdle. It is rare that you see families pick up their entire lives and move to where their child is playing for only a few months. Instead, there is a thing called a ‘Billot Family’. These are people that take players in and give them a home while they are playing hockey. The rules and conditions vary from house to house, so you won’t know what is expected of you until you talk to one.

Although Freel had his heart set on playing Juniors, it took him a bit of time to get his parents on board. Liam explained “everyone questions my decision. No one has been able to truly understand it, but eventually both support what I want to continue with even though it is scary for them, sending me off to live with another family and not being able to see them as much.”

Freel continued, “My guidance counselor has been on the same page with me since the beginning by just making sure this is what I want to do and that this is the right decision for me, but at the end of the day, it is the support you get within yourself rather than the outside.”

Liam’s guidance counselor, Brian DiUbaldo, shared that it was evident that Liam was going to go the route of Juniors from the first time he came into a college planning meeting and suggested this route instead.

DiUbaldo shared that the success of Juniors for a player “is driven by their ability, passion for the sport, and a clear thought-out goal.” 

This was everything Liam displayed when talking about it. He came up with a plan, he knew what he wanted and had to do if going about this way, which shows the dedication and commitment he has.

Throughout the upcoming year, Liam’s overall goal is to take the next steps to play at the higher level, such as growing physically and strategically. He hopes to see himself playing at Ohio State University after Juniors because a lot of his family lives out there. As of March 12, 2024, Liam had signed with the Lake Tahoe Lakers, who are based in California. He will be moving out to California in the middle of August to play hockey and take online community college courses to gain credits for when he is ready to go to a four-year college.

Hockey is more than just a game to Liam, it his passion.

“If you were to ask me what I would do without it I wouldn’t know what to tell you,” said Freel. “It’s a game I love and want to keep playing, and I am not ready to hang the skates up yet.” 

Although he is ready to take on the challenge, he is going to miss his home and family very much. Through it all he plans to keep a positive mindset,

“Even if it doesn't work out in the end as I hoped it would, I know that I tried and would never get an experience or memories like I would anywhere else.”