Bedford hockey team has navigated some highs and lows the past few seasons, and the Kicking Mules may get a little of both this year.
Leading into the 2011-12 season, Bedford saw its program dwindle to just 11 players, and faced the possibility of dropping the sport because of high financial cost per player.
Instead, the Mules got some late additions to their roster, easing the cost, and won the Northwest Hockey Conference’s White Division regular-season title with a 9-1-0 record.
That championship enabled Bedford to move up last season to the upper tier of the NHC — the highly competitive Red Division.
The Mules struggled to a 2-8-0 record in Red Division games, and were 9-16-1 overall, splitting their schedule against Michigan competition.
This season, Bedford has dropped back into the White Division National Conference, where it is viewed in a preseason coaches poll as that conference’s best team.
Restricted by Michigan rules, which limit teams to 25 regular-season games to be eligible for state tournament play, coach Randy Menchaca’s Mules could go unbeaten in White Division play and still not claim a regular-season conference title.
That’s because Bedford is limited to just 10 White Division games — one game against each National and American conference teams. The other National teams will play 14 conference games.
Further, Bedford will not compete in the White Division playoffs because of their game limit.
The other top contenders in the National are expected to be Southview, Perrysburg, and Anthony Wayne.
Last season the Generals won the National title, then lost 5-4 to American Conference champion Maumee in the White Division’s playoff championship game.
Here is a look at the teams in predicted order of finish:
Bedford has 20 players, but only one senior. The Mules’ returnees include senior forward Devin Keener, junior forwards Grant Harper and Josef Molnar, junior defenseman Jacob Ansara, and junior goaltender Austin Grycza.
“Our stronger returning players should help us stay competitive in most of our games,” said coach Menchaca, who is in his 10th season (119-99-3 record) at Bedford.
“They have a dual responsibility to handle the team in front of them, and to motivate the many new players. There is a strong bond among the players, who are determined to maintain the team’s existence.
“But with eight sophomores and six freshmen, we are a very young team. Many of our returning players saw limited game time last year.”
Molnar, who had three goals in NHC play, is the top returning scorer, and Grycza started just one Red Division game a year ago. The Mules are 3-1 this season, 3-0 in the division.
Southview (15-14-1, 7-3-0) is off to a 2-0-0 start this year in the division for 12th-year coach Wayne Collins.
The Cougars have only 13 players, but 11 are returnees and six are seniors.
Leading the way are senior captains Mike Dibble, a first-team all-division defenseman, and Michael Jahn, the Cougars’ top scorer. Dibble had 12 goals and 14 assists in division games, and Jahn had 18 goals and 23 assists.
Complementing them are senior defensemen Cole Snider (5 goals, 4 assists) and Kyle Fleck (9 goals, 6 assists), senior forward Mike Grill, and sophomore forward Andrew Jahn (9 goals, 13 assists).
Collins sees good senior leaderships, has his three top scorers back, and feels the Cougars are strong defensively. They are inexperienced at goaltender, but are improving daily between the pipes.
“I think we can score some goals,” Collins said. “We want to put ourselves in a good position come playoff time. Staying healthy could be a concern with a short roster.”
Perrysburg has 16 players out for new coach Kevin Quinn, but only three are seniors. The Yellow Jackets are off to a 2-3-0 start.
Expected to lead the Jackets are senior forwards Chris Sarni and Alex Serrao. Last season, Sarni had 12 goals and 8 assists in division play, and Serrao had 9 goals and 10 assists.
Helping will be junior forwards Matt Studer (12 goals, 6 assists) and Nick Wismer (3 goals, 3 assists), junior goaltender Sam Hooper, and sophomore forward Drew Nitchke.
The Yellow Jackets are a young team but play a fast, aggressive style.
“We have younger players who have to get used to the speed and size in the league,” Quinn said.
“It’s harder to put them into complicated situations that require the experience and knowledge from playing longer.
“We are excited about the season, and about seeing what the players are putting forth and where it will take us. The players have a lot of heart and skill when it comes to the sport, and the sky is the limit.”
Anthony Wayne (16-9, 10-1) graduated some off its top point producers from last season, when they reached the White Division playoff final.
The Generals have 12 players including seven seniors. They are off to an 0-4-0 start in conference play this year, having been outscored 36-8 in those games.
First-year coach Dean Bowman will be looking for leadership from senior forwards Brandon Zielinski, Cody Bowman and Julia Phillips, senior defenseman Carson Bales, junior forward Mike McDougall, and junior defenseman Cole Breese.
Zielinski tallied 17 goals and 24 assists in NHC games last season, McDougall added eight goals and three assists, and Bowman added two goals and five assists.
Having graduated seven seniors, this will be a rebuilding year for AW.
“Our goal is to try to finish .500 for the year,” coach Bowman said.
Lake (16-12) may struggle to challenge the White Division contenders this season. The Flyers, under seventh-year coach Criag Horvath, won the conference title two years ago.
Lake has just 11 players, six of which are seniors.
The top players should be seniors Jeff Wilson (forward), Adam Wozniak (forward), Tyler Rickman (forward), and Chase Gardull (goaltender), and juniors Malachi McLean (forward-defense) and Dylan Mauder (defense).
Wilson (4 goals, 3 assists), Wozniak (4-3), McLean (2-5), and Mauder (1-6) all scored seven points in conference games last season.
“A lot of these kids just started playing, and our goalie is in his first year in goal,” Horvath said. “But they’re learning fast and have good work ethic.”
Fremont Ross (0-16) has 17 players out, including seven seniors. But the Little Giants were winless last season, and have started this year 0-4.
Leading Ross will be senior defensemen Eigil Voelund, Jan Imboden, and Jacob Dagg, and senior center Chris Souders.
“We hope to be more competitive than last year as we are working on improving skilled positions,” third-year coach Micah Schumacher said.
“We have two foreign-exchange students playing this year that are doing a good job of supporting the returning cast.”