BOWLING GREEN — The Bobcats are back.
Once the premiere high school hockey program in northwest Ohio, Bowling Green dominated in the 1990s. Under the guidance of longtime coach Dan DeWitt, the Bobcats captured four state titles (1991, 1997, 1998, 1999) and finished second four other times in the '90s.
The school made 10 consecutive state final-four appearances from 1995-2004.
The bottom fell out — for a variety of reasons — and BG has not been back to the state tournament since 2004. The nine-year district title drought also included below-.500 seasons and last-place league finishes.
Now DeWitt enters his 25th season with a state-ranked caliber club. BG has moved to 19-9-1 with two tournament victories and was ranked No. 9 in the final state coaches poll.
“Sometimes it's harder to stay on top than get there,” DeWitt said. “You're a marked man, and everyone gives you their best shot. But the bottom line is that you won't win games unless you have players.”
This year’s 21 players were only in diapers or not even born when BG hockey made a name for itself. But all are very aware of the once-proud tradition.
“I've always known growing up, seeing all the banners and all these state championships,” junior goalie Tanner Fausnaugh said. “We're trying to show everyone that we're playing hard and we are bringing it back.”
Senior captain Phil Rich, who leads the team in scoring with 40 points, said being part of a resurgence has been something his classmates talked about while growing up. He admitted it hasn't been easy.
“We have been disrespected as a program because we had not earned it,” Rich said. “Now people have been hearing about us. We're on a mission to prove we're back.”
The Bobcats had not had a winning season since 2009 and were picked to finish last in the Northwest Hockey Conference Red Division. Building off a near-.500 season last year, Bowling Green finished second (5-3-0). The Bobcats defeated Northview, a state runner-up last season, twice. They also knocked off St. Francis de Sales and finished ahead of both schools.
“Last year was a step forward with our confidence,” DeWitt said of the 15-16-1 season.
DeWitt lost four seniors from that team and had 18 returning letter winners. BG is outscoring the opposition 134-64.
Rich is tied for the team lead with 18 goals and has a team-high 22 assists.
Sophomore forward Grant DeWitt, the coach's son, is second on the team with 36 points — 18 goals and 18 assists. He had a hat trick in BG’s 11-0 win over Perrysburg on Tuesday.
Not surprisingly, the goaltending play of Fausnaugh, who has started since he was a freshman, also has been crucial. Fausnaugh (18-9-1) has a 2.35 goals-against average and a .903 save percentage.
“He was thrown into the fire but that experience has helped him improve significantly,” coach DeWitt said. “He has been consistent, and he's stolen some games for us.”
Fausnaugh agreed being pressed into duty early in his career has helped.
"It made me want to play even harder," he said. "Now it’s awesome. I always know my team will come back and score goals and that takes pressure off. We have all these skilled defensemen and older guys that have played.”
Only one defenseman was lost to graduation. Senior defenseman Drew Mankowski, who has 10 points (3 goals, 7 assists), is a co-captain along with Rich.
“Drew is the steady hand back there,” coach DeWitt said. “He's the anchor.”
The other defensemen are senior Justus Smith (10 points), junior Matt Cousino (four points), junior Joe Costic (nine points), sophomore Clark Mayberry (nine points), and sophomore Noah Dubasik (four points).
There also are seven experienced forwards that all have contributed on the scoring sheet.
Junior forward Jeremy Chambers is tied for the team lead in goals scored with 18. Chambers also has 13 assists for 31 points.
Junior forward Aaron Crawford has tallied 28 points (12 G, 16 A), while junior forward Connor Senn have chipped in with 27 point (12 G, 15 A).
Freshman forward Adam Furnas has made an immediate impact with 27 points (14 goals, 13 assists). Senior forward Keegan O'Brien has 23 points (12 G, 11 A). Sophomore forward Brock Powers has nine points.
“We have a core group of kids that are playing well,” coach DeWitt said. “We have a good balance of scorers. It's not just one or two lines. It is great for team morale when everyone contributes.”
DeWitt has a career record of 486-227-10. The Bobcats were the first team to bring a championship to northwest Ohio in 1980 — the first of six, including one in 1984.
BG trails only Lakewood St. Edward in total state titles (11).
One of the biggest factors in the recent decline was the drop in numbers in BG's youth hockey program.
“Everyone wanted to play Bobcats hockey,” DeWitt said. “Then the numbers unfortunately dropped off [from about 400] to the mid-200s.”
But DeWitt said his passion never wavered, even when he had to re-evaluate his team's objectives. He said a recent change that also has paid dividends is working less on X’s and O’s and more on skating and passing.
“These wins are so satisfying because of some of those rough times we went through,” Rich said. “Everyone has the right mindset and are committed to the team.”