After a 10-year drought without a Northwest Hockey Conference Red Division championship, St. Francis de Sales is expected to capture a second straight title this season.
The Knights won their first NHC title since 1999 with a 9-0-1 record last year and was ranked No. 1 in the state coaches poll for most of the season. With 11 returning starters from a team that lost just three times last year, they are positioned well to defend their crown.
"It's nice that people look at our program and think it's one of the better ones," St. Francis coach Brian Kinsella said. "But it will be a dogfight because there are so many good teams out there. Findlay proved they were capable of beating us last year. St. John's has improved dramatically. Of course Northview finished as the state runner-up. And Bowling Green may have the best goalie in the league. Anyone of those teams can be the favorite on any given night."
Northview, which made a terrific run late last season with 11 straight wins to reach the state title game, is expected to finish second. The Wildcats just missed capturing the school's first state championship, losing 4-1 to Cleveland St. Ignatius.
"This squad should be able to build off of last year's success and learn from the mistakes it made," said Northview coach Mike Jones, who has 15 letter winners back. "But getting young men to understand that no one cares where they finished last year and putting it behind them will be a major challenge. All of the schools in this division return a boatload of talent and it will be the hungriest team that comes out on top."
Findlay upset St. Francis 3-2 in overtime in the district semifinals last year.
"The guys remember everything that happened and have it in their minds that they don't want that to be a repeat," Kinsella said. "We're looking at it as everyone has to buy in and be part of the program. We're doing things a bit different."
There will be a few changes in the Red Division. It has altered its format and has gone to a postseason tournament to determine the champion. In 15 previous seasons, the team with the most points during the regular season won the title.
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Now every team will play twice for the regular-season title and then a postseason tournament will be held Feb. 11-13 at Tam-O-Shanter. The fourth and fifth place teams will play each other with the winner advancing to play the No. 1 team. The winning team from that game will then play the winner of a game between the second and third place teams for the tournament title.
St. John's Jesuit coach Mike Hayes said the switch should help the teams get prepared for the state playoffs.
"I love it. It should get everyone more playoff ready," he said.
Kinsella said it is similar to what the Cleveland area schools do.
"It should create even more excitement for the fans," he said.
Another big change in the division is the departure of Southview to the lower-tier White Division. Lack of numbers prevented the Cougars from being competitive in recent years.
Here is a look at the teams in predicted order of finish:
St. Francis (31-3-3 overall, 9-0-1 Red Division) has experience up front as well as defensively.
"The players know what it takes to win," Kinsella said.
But he and his team are wary of a lack of preparedness game in and game out. Overconfidence also must be guarded against.
"The league is going to be strong so we have to prepare for each game," said Kinsella, who has a 71-20-12 record in three years at St. Francis.
Eight seniors are back led by Connor Frey, a defenseman who had 43 points last season (18 goals, 25 assists) to earn All-NHC first team honors.
Junior forward Ben Torchia tallied 73 points last year (40 G, 33 A). Senior forward Tyler Murphy posted 62 points (25 G, 37 A), while fellow senior forwards Nate Opblinger (16 G, 42 A), Jake Wawrzynick (3 G, 8 A) and Bryce Connor (2 G, 25 A) also made significant contributions.
"The focus this season is to make sure we are ready to play as a team," Kinsella said. "I think our team will progressively get better. We look forward to the state playoffs. We have some studs back, but some other guys have to come through."
St. Francis is off to a 7-0 start including two wins over Findlay (3-1 and 7-6). The Knights won the Cold Turkey Thanksgiving Tournament at Tam-O-Shanter with a 2-0 win in the finals over state power Lakewood St.|Edward.
Northview (21-9-3, 8-2-0) has finished as state runner up four times (1982, 1990, 2006, 2010).
Jones, who is 37-23-5 in two seasons, has 24 total on the varsity. Among them are eight seniors and 15 returning starters.
Senior center Nolan Culver earned All-NHC first team honors. Senior defenseman/winger Tyler Harding also made the all-league first team.
Senior defenseman Graham Kelsey and senior forward Aaron Booth both earned honorable mention. Senior winger Ryan Laplante is a three-year letter winner. Junior goalie Austin Gryca was second team.
"There is depth up front, on the blue line and in the net as well," Jones said.
But he said his team must overcome "a sense of entitlement" due to its ride last year because this season presents a completely different challenge.
Northview faces one of the toughest schedules in the state and will have to grow into a strong unit. Carrying 24 players and developing some of the younger kids will also be a challenge.
Jones said the best, most talented team doesn't always win.
" Most of the time it comes down to who wants it more, who competes, and who pays attention to the details," he said.
St. John's (19-11-3, 6-3-1) won Red Division titles in 2006-07 and 2008-09 before finishing third last year.
Hayes, who has compiled a record of 157-68-18 in six previous seasons, led the Titans to a state title in 2007.
This year Hayes has 25 varsity payers, including six seniors and 11 returning starters.
His top player is senior forward Eric Brown, who posted 76 points last year (44 G, 32 A), on his way to All-NHC first team honors. Senior forward Jake Kennedy (17 G, 29 A) earned honorable mention.
Two sophomore defensemen, Ryan Rapp and Jimmy Scott, played significant minutes as freshmen. Rapp tallied 20 points.
"Everyone else is unknown," Hayes said. "No one is proven."
St. John's is off to a 3-4 start due to tough early schedule but it beat Cleveland St. Ignatius in the final of the Jesuit Tournament. The Titans also lost 4-3 to Northview.
"We're still young and finding our way," Hayes said.
But he said he believes his Titans have one of the better top lines in the league with Brown being arguably the best in the league.
"The forward lines are young and inexperienced but deep in ability," Hayes said.
The defensive corps returns five of six from last year and at the end last season, St. John's had two of the best defensemen in the league.
Lack of consistent offensive production is an area of concern.
"We are still searching for secondary scoring," Hayes said.
The team has some players that have plenty of potential of adding offense but they are new varsity players.
"If they can prove to consistently add offense, we should be very competitive," Hayes said. "All the ingredients are there to be a good team. Because of the youth and overall inexperience we will be searching for an identity. But we should prove to have the most upside at the end of the year."
Findlay (21-9-2, 4-5-1) is loaded with experience with 12 returning letter winners. Coach Dan St. Jean, who has a 76-40-6 record in four seasons, has nine seniors.
The Trojans look to build off the big upset over St. Francis last year.
Senior forward Trey Bracy is the top returning scorer. Bracy had 18 goals and 40 assists for 58 points. Junior forward Alex Henry scored 21 goals to go along with 22 assists. Bracy and Henry will serve as co-captains.
Senior forward Alex Fenimore (13 G, 16 A) also is back along with defensemen junior Mark Roepke (9 G, 9 A) and senior Dylan Gray (2 G, 8 A).
St. Jean said he expects JoJo Brigadio and Michael Rowe to be key supporters.
The Findlay defense also has seasoning with Gray and Roepke joined by Nick Woolley and Patrick Hall.
St. Jean said goaltending is "up for grabs" between Max Poe and Alex Woolley.
"All in all, the team will be very competitive with our overall goal of 'Getting to Nationwide Arena [state final four],'" St. Jean said.
Bowling Green (13-14-2, 2-7) once ruled the Red Division, winning eight of 10 titles from 1996 to 2005. The Bobcats captured five straight from 2001-05.
Junior goalie Nate Gay took All-NHC first team honors as a sophomore, the only goaltender to earn the distinction.
Bobcats coach Dan DeWitt enters his 21st season with a 440-162-14 career record.
Among 20 varsity players are six seniors and 14 returning letter winners.
Gay stands 6-5 and weighs 205 pounds. Senior defenseman Cole Jennings wasn All-NHC honorable mention.
DeWitt said he likes his team defense with two goalies back along with five of six defensemen.
But a big possible weakness for BG is struggling to score goals. DeWitt lost six seniors, including his top three scorers, to graduation.
"We will have to play physical, outwork our opponents, and find ways to generate more offense to compete for league title," DeWitt said.