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Maumee flew under the radar last year en route to a Northwest Hockey Conference White Division playoff championship but the Panthers don't figure to sneak up on anybody this season with their ability to light the lamp with regularity.
Maumee has five starters returning for coach Scott Young including his top two leading scorers.
The Panthers are the pick to win the new White Division American Conference title.
“It makes it fun and it's another challenge,” Young said. “We won't be bragging about it though.”
Senior center Matt Young, the coach's son, is back after leading the division with 120 points last season. Senior center Sam Molnar had 60 points last year.
Maumee (4-0-1) and has outscored its foes 45-12. The Panthers are expected to battle with Anthony Wayne for the tournament title.
Whitmer and Clay are expected to give the Panthers the biggest challenge in the American Conference.
Whitmer coach Mark Waddell said he expects his team to compete for the title.
“The players have bought into the system we have put in place and it has been working,” Waddell said. “Our league is very competitive this year, with several teams with great coaches and star players. Every game counts as each team has a great shot at winning the division.”
Clay coach Mike Heck said he has a young team.
“But with our hard workhorse mentality we will surprise many teams,” Heck said.
Young said all the players in the lower tier division look forward to the league tournament.
“No one from our division will probably go to state and we know that,” Young said. “Now with the White Division playoff, they can win a trophy and know they've accomplished something.”
Maumee defeated Anthony Wayne 6-5 last year to win the White Division playoff championship.
Here's a look at the American Conference teams in predicted order of finish based on a coaches' poll:
Maumee compiled a 17-11-0 overall record and were 8-2-0 in league play.
Young, in his eighth season coaching, has 16 varsity players with two seniors.
Matt Young has played since age 2 and competes on a travel hockey team in the offseason.
“He really knows the game and sees the ice well,” coach Young said. “He has a lot of experience.”
Molnar is the team's sharp shooter.
“He's silent but deadly and is dangerous around the net,” Young said.
Sophomore defenseman Austin Callahan and sophomore forward Cody Hussing also are top returning players.
Sophomore goalie Stephen Klocko has made huge steps forward, according to his coach.
The Panthers’ overall strengths are speed and a high scoring offense.
Young has almost an entirely new defense that is skilled but needs to gel.
“We have many new players, but we have a lot of leadership,” Young said. “It should be an exciting year. I think we can compete with anyone in the White Division and we're looking forward to some great games.”
Whitmer has five seniors and eight returning letter winners from a team that went 16-15-0 overall and finished third in the division.
Six players received All-NHC honorable mention: senior forward Damian Brown, senior forward Nick Rutter, junior forward Devon Herzig, junior forward Hunter Carr, senior forward Blake Merrill, and senior defenseman Chris Kelly.
“Team unity this year has been a big strength for us,” Waddell said. “Our captains [Brown, Rutter, Merrill, and Kelly] have done a great job.”
Offensively the team has been clicking with the top line of Brown, Herzig, and Rutter.
“They have been a great combination and they have been playing well at both ends of the ice,” Waddell said. “We look for this line to continue to put the puck in the net.”
Defensively Kelly and Jesse Perez have been working well together as upperclassmen, while junior defenseman Aaron Thoman and freshman Kiowa Taraschke have been a very nice surprise. Freshman goalie Jimmie Ward has been improving every week.
Waddell said the lack of numbers is the biggest challenge.
“It seems to be a common trend this year across the league,” he said. “Keeping everyone healthy and improving on both sides of the puck, primarily on our defensive zone, had been the focus.”
Clay has eight returning players from last year that Heck expects will all step up and act as leaders to the incoming freshmen.
The Eagles compiled a 6-23-1 overall record and were 2-10-0 in league play.
Heck has just three seniors and three returning starters.
Senior goalie Matt Hennessy returns in net. Also back are senior defenseman Anthony Csizek and senior forward Jake Richard.
Others who are expected to contribute include junior forward Dylan Berg, junior forward Andrew Pappas, and junior forward Jake Woodrum.
“Our heart and determination is our major strength,” Heck said. “Every player has shown that they will play their hardest and never give up.”
A weakness could be six freshmen who are not completely used to the hard-hitting, fast pace of high school hockey. They need to be counted on Heck said.
“Although they are quickly learning and improving,” he said.
“Another weakness is only having a total of 14 players, making injuries possibly detrimental to our season.”
Ottawa Hills coach Derek Helmke said the jump up from the Blue Division has been a challenge.
The Green Bears went winless last year, but five starters return.
Helmke, who coached at Anthony Wayne the last two seasons and was an assistant at OH for seven years before that, inherits 11 total players including four seniors.
Senior defenseman Thomas Kropp, senior defenseman/forward Rolff Sandberg, and sophomore goaltender Kaleb Konoff are the team's captains.
“Our senior captains can play with anyone in the league,” Helmke said. “Early on we have had success with a disciplined penalty kill and aggressive power play.”
The lack of depth and a large number of novice players makes it hard to stay in some games, he said.
“We have a good core and hope to improve throughout the season,” Helmke said. “As an early assessment we will compete with last year's Blue Division teams, and hope to play with the rest of the White Division.”
Springfield has just 12 players but 11 of them have varsity experience.
Coach Don Dahmer's Blue Devils went 13-13-0 last year and were 6-3 in league play. He has two seniors and four returning starters.
Senior forward/defenseman Nick Sosnowcz earned All-NHC first team honors, while senior forward Adam Giner and junior defenseman Josh Willson both earned honorable mention.
Other top returners include sophomore forward Grant LeVeck and sophomore forward David Vandergrist.
Dahmer said freshman goalie Cameron O'Neil is a first time netminder and has only been on the ice a few months
“Overall we have good experience,” he said. “But part of our weakness will be the inexperience [with O'Neil]. But he is improving every week, so I think we will be okay.”
Dahmer said he expects to finish somewhere in the middle of the division.
“We have some good skaters, we just need maturity,” he said.