This season started a little differently for Springfield than the three previous for coach Don Dahmer.
After winning the Northwest Hockey Conference Blue Division last season for the first time, the Blue Devils opened this season as the favorite to finish again on top.
Springfield has 14 players returning from last season's team that finished 6-2 in the division.
"I think we're going to have another successful season and have a chance to repeat as champions," Dahmer said.
But Dahmer, only a couple of seasons removed from going winless in league, understands winning is easier said than done, especially for a team looking to repeat as champion.
"Two years ago we didn't win any [NHC] games, but as the season progressed we began to gain confidence," Dahmer said. "The guys still have to work hard to do what they're supposed to do."
The division consists of Springfield, Ottawa Hills, Lake and Fremont Ross after Start discontinued hockey.
Fewer contenders potentially make for an even more difficult fight to come out on top than in previous seasons. There's little room for error.
Springfield's Sean Jones goes toward the net against Ottawa Hills' Thomas Knopp and goaltender Alli Frederick. The Blue Devils won the NHC Blue Division last year.
Fremont Ross and Ottawa Hills also have some experience to lean on.
Lake, which finished strong last season, comes into this season short on experience that played a role in the Flyers finishing a victory shy of tying for the division title a year ago.
Here is a look at the teams in predicted order of finish:
Springfield (14-12-2 overall, 6-2-0 Blue Division) certainly isn't lacking for players that understand what it takes to win a title.
Forward Josh Eubank, a 6-foot-3, 170-pound junior, leads the way after earning Blue Division player of the year honors last season. He finished with 15 points (9 G, 6 A) and looks to build upon last year's success and guide experienced returnees back to the top.
Goalie Aiden Cummings (6-foot-2, 200) is also considered one of the top returners after being named Blue Division goalie of the year last season. Cummings recorded 215 saves, while allowing only 21 goals.
Seniors Anthony Sosnowicz (6-2, 200) and Sean Jones (6-0, 170) and sophomore Nick Sosnowicz (5-11, 170) are also key letter winners.
"The keys for us are to not play overconfidently and going ahead and working hard and continuing to develop," Dahmer said.
Fremont Ross (11-9-0, 5-3-0) entered the season under the direction of first-year coach Mike Sipsma and he's looking for the Little Giants not to skip a beat and contend for the title.
Sipsma has plenty experience to work with from last season's team that finished tied for second. Thirteen letter winners are back, led by senior captains Austin Wilhelm (6-2, 215), Vaughn Schumacher (6-0, 180), and Kenny Ridley (6-3, 205). Wilhelm is coming off a solid junior season in which he finished with 13 points (7 G, 6 A) and earned All-NHC Blue Division honorable mention.
The Little Giants lineup boasts plenty of size and is also one of the more seasoned team.
"We should be able to compete well with our schedule being a touch lighter this year," Sipsma said. "We have experienced leadership and with our size and speed we will create matchup problems for a lot of teams.
"Our team depth could possibly be an issue if we have any injuries or unforeseen events that would affect our roster."
Senior Brandon Pridemore (5-10, 160) and juniors Alex Sipsma (5-8, 175) and Adam Hoffman (5-6, 140) are returners who also figure to play key roles.
"We expect to win our division and be competitive in all our tournaments," the Little Giants coach said.
Ottawa Hills (5-15-0, 2-6-0) could end up as the most improved team in the division if all goes as planned for coach McKinch.
Ultimately, McKinch would like nothing better than to see the Green Bears continue to improve their play. After finishing fourth last season, Ottawa Hills is looking for a better all-around outcome.
The Geren Bears are counting on seniors Michael Hartman (5-11, 160), Taylor Zanville (6-0, 170), and A.J. Longthorne (6-1, 250) to serve as team catalysts for a team that returns 12 letter winners. Hartman finished with 10 points (5 G, 5 A) last season.
"We will be strong on defense with decent scoring up front," McKinch said.
Sophomores Rolfe Sandberg (5-7, 140) and Thomas Knopp (5-8, 150) are also being called upon to contribute.
Lake (16-4-2, 5-3-0) appears to be the most roster-challenged team in thedivision.
Craig Horvath is in his fourth season as Flyers coach and is working with only three letter winners.
Seniors Ricky Cox (6-0, 170) and Tony Horvath (6-4, 250), who is the coach's son, and junior Mitch Mauder (5-10, 160) make up the returnees.
Newcomers Travis Grimes (5-8, 180) and Mike Bunn (5-10, 200) are Start seniors and were members of the Spartans last season. They are playing with the Flyers this season since there is no hockey program at Start. Grimes earned All-NHC Blue Division second-team honors last season.
"It's wide open," Horvath said of the Blue Division. "But being that Springfield won [the division] last season, it's theirs to lose. "But I think anybody can win on any given day."