The Southview Cougars have picked themselves up and dusted themselves off after languishing as the doormat of the Northwest Hockey Conference Red Division for a decade.
Southview, which has finished last in the division the last eight seasons, was once again picked for that spot in a preseason poll. But the upstart Cougars sit tied atop the six-team division with a 3-2 record at the season s midpoint.
Southview has opened the year with a 13-5-4 overall record with a big win over favorite St. John s Jesuit as well as victories over Bowling Green and Findlay.
The Cougars have outscored opponents 80-52, including a 13-11 advantage in league play.
I m not surprised at all, junior right winger Justin Portillo said. From the beginning I knew we would have a good team. Maybe in the past years we have not been all that strong. But this team is different. This team has bonded. We don t look at the past, we look forward.
Southview had posted just one winning season in the NHC over the last 12 seasons. The Cougars had compiled a dreary 3-47 record over the last five years and were just 6-78 in league play over the last eight years. Southview s only season above .500 came in 1998-99 when it finished 9-3 and took third.
Coach Wayne Collins, who spent 16 years at Ottawa Hills, is in his seventh year at the helm of the Cougar program. He said there had been talk of moving the team down to the middle-echelon White Division.
I fought against that hard, he said. I knew we had talent here. I always knew we could compete in the Red Division. The guys on this team really like each other. They work their butts off for each other in practice. I just know what we have and now it seems to be working.
Portillo, who played travel hockey last season before deciding to represent his high school, is tied for the team lead in points with senior Stephen Howard. Portillo has scored 19 goals and dished out 19 assists.
Portillo said the team is young with just two seniors, but has talent and heart. He said the team works hard every day to get even better.
We re not satisfied. We know we can beat the top teams, he said.
Howard, the team s captain, was Southview s most valuable player last year. He has a team-leading 24 goals and has doled out 14 assists. Howard said the players wanted to erase the program s reputation as a basement dweller.
This is a new year and once we beat St. John s we knew good things could happen, Howard said. It just takes hard work and team effort. I like being the underdog. I still think people don t give us credit because we are Southview. I hope all that changes.
Howard said leadership is the difference. Portillo (eight goals and three assists) and Howard (three goals and five assists) are ranked No. 1 and 2 in points in the Red Division.
It s really a whole new team, he said. But now we have to work even harder. It s only going to get more difficult.
Perhaps the biggest key to the early turnaround has been the stellar play of junior goalie Erik Fisher. Fisher has a record of 12-5-3 and has a .940 save percentage.
When they said we would finish last that got us fired up and gave us the motivation to go out and beat St. John s and everything like that, Fisher said.
Fisher, who said he and his teammates want to establish a tradition, said interest in the team is building.
We re getting more fans now, he said. We know we can actually go out and beat these guys and not roll over and let them kill us.
Junior left winger Steve Dibble, who has 10 goals and 16 assists, said the entire team wanted to prove something.
No one believed in us, Dibble said. We are trying to get more interest in our team and our recent success has helped. Now teams will take us seriously. So now it will be even tougher.
Junior left winger Drew Saltzstein has tallied nine goals to go along with four assists.
It feels good because no one expected us to do well because of our past seasons, Saltzstein said. I want the teams in the future to continue the winning ways that we re starting.
Saltzstein said the team went from feeling like underdogs to realizing it could win the first league title in school history after the win over St. John s.
But I think we still have to show teams that we are for real, he said. We have to prove it hasn t been a fluke.
Collins said he knew Fisher, who leads the division with 2.00 goals against average, would be solid in net.
But now he s proven it to the whole league, Collins said. He s been worth his weight in gold. He s a bear in practice and that carries into games. He wants to stop every puck. He s makes the other guys work even harder.
Portillo said Fisher has been phenomenal with the way he has stepped up.
We knew he had it in him. It s good to know you have a strong goalie, Portillo said.
Making the hot start even more improbable is the fact that Collins lost seven players to graduation.
Guys have stepped up, including the younger guys. We have a real young group of defensemen and they re doing a good job. They ve learned how to win early in the year, Collins said. It just started snowballing.
Collins said that team chemistry has played perhaps the biggest role in the ascension.
Collins said an early season trip down to a tournament in Oxford, Ohio over the Thanksgiving break may have been a turning point. The team tied three games in which it had trailed.
That showed me that they would not quit, Collins said. It was a confidence builder. We knew then we could hang with a lot of teams.
Then after three straight wins over St. John s, Bowling Green and Findlay, the players really began to believe.
Collins said it takes three solid lines to be successful in the Red Division.
Everyone has played a big role all the way down to our checking line, he said.
Collins said his other senior, Abburraham Mustapha, has three goals and nine assists. He also credited three defensemen, sophomore Justin Napierela (two goals and 11 assists), junior Aaron Birney (10 assists) and freshman Jay Fisher (six goals and eight assists) for their strong play along the blue line.
Collins said he felt his team let one get away last Saturday against St. Francis. Portillo scored a hat trick in the game in which Southview led 2-0 and 3-1 before falling 5-3. He said his players took too many penalties in the last two periods.
Southview s next test comes Jan. 24 in a rematch against St. John s before taking on Bowling Green the following day.
We still have a lot of work to do, Collins said. The season is just about half over and we can t be satisfied with where we are at. My biggest challenge is to keep that at an even keel. We don t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. Winning the division is our goal.
Contact Mark Monroe at:email@example.com 419-304-4760.