Titans favored in Northwest Hockey Conference, which has produced state’s best 3 of last 6 years

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    Northview's Drew Crandall, left, moves the puck against Lakewood St. Edward's Matt Geib in the state final last season. Crandall had 15 goals and 19 assists last year.

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  • Northview's Drew Crandall, left, moves the puck against Lakewood St. Edward's Matt Geib in the state final last season. Crandall had 15 goals and 19 assists last year.
    Northview's Drew Crandall, left, moves the puck against Lakewood St. Edward's Matt Geib in the state final last season. Crandall had 15 goals and 19 assists last year.

    For many years hockey teams from the Toledo metro area could not break though to capture a state championship, but that door has been kicked down emphatically.

    Teams from the Northwest Hockey Conference have won three of the last six state titles.

    Northview was the latest team from the NHC Red Division to win a state title as the Wildcats captured the championship last March.

    St. Francis de Sales (2011) and St. John's Jesuit (2007) also recently both brought home championships for the first time.

    Northview became the first public school to win the championship since Shaker Heights won in 2001. The Wildcats knocked off St. John's 2-1 to win the district title game and also won the regular-season and playoff titles in the Red Division.

    But coach Mike Jones lost a whole host of defensemen, as well as goalie Austin Gryca, to graduation.

    “We will be a better-than-average team with an opportunity to have a fairly high ceiling,” Jones said. “Although 'new' on the blue line and in the net, we should steadily improve.”

    St. John's was the first Toledo team to capture a state hockey title and appears to be loaded to make another run. (Bowling Green won four state championships in the 1990s.)

    St. John's has both good goaltending and depth up front, along with four experienced defensemen.

    Coach Mike Hayes, who has led St. John's to the district final the last two seasons, believes his team can again make a run to the state tournament.

    “That is the standard we have set here,” Hayes said. “Every year our goal is to make it down to Columbus. Some years that is more feasible than others, but that's always the goal.”

    Junior goalie Mike Barrett already has three shutouts this season and had a 1.45 goals-against average last year.

    “We have a solid goaltender [who] we will be able to count on to keep us in any game,” Hayes said. “We have four lines that can play against any team, which should allow us to keep the pace of the game high and tire teams out.”

    Hayes also said his players know they were just one step away from the final four last year.

    “The last two seasons we made it to the district finals and lost to the eventual state champs,” he said. “And we had opportunities to win those games. We have a good number of kids still with us from both of those, and that's a good thing. They remember the sting.”

    Hayes said the NHC coaches always believed their conference was on par with the Cleveland district, which had produced seven straight state champs before the Titans won in 2007.

    “We take pride in being the first because we might have eliminated the stigma,” Hayes said. “This is a tough district to get out of. You have to earn it.”

    The first state coaches poll of the season reflects that change. St. John’s is tied for the No. 1 ranking with Cleveland St. Ignatius. Northview is ranked No. 3.

    Hayes believes that Northview deserves the tag as preseason favorites.

    “Until someone knocks them off, they are the top dogs,” he said.

    The Wildcats captured the school's first state team championship in any sport by defeating powerhouse Cleveland St. Edward 5-2 in the title game. It also ended a lengthy drought for the program that has made nine trips to the state final four and five appearance in the championship game.

    St. John's is the preseason favorite to win the Northwest Hockey Conference Red Division with (front, from left) Collin Suter, Austin Kelly, and (back) Ryan Rapp, Mike Barrett and Ian Rapp. The Titans are off to a 6-0-0 start in the league this season.
    St. John's is the preseason favorite to win the Northwest Hockey Conference Red Division with (front, from left) Collin Suter, Austin Kelly, and (back) Ryan Rapp, Mike Barrett and Ian Rapp. The Titans are off to a 6-0-0 start in the league this season.

    But St. John's, already 6-0-0 in league play this year, is considered the favorite to win the division.

    The teams play on back-to-back weekends in the first two weeks of January.

    Here's a look at the Red Division teams in predicted order of finish based on a coaches' poll:

    St. John's went 25-10-1 overall and 9-2-0 in league play under Hayes, who has a 205-89-21 record in nine seasons.

    He has 24 varsity players, 13 returning starters, and seven seniors.

    Senior forward Austin Kelly racked up 59 points with 30 goals and 29 assists last season.

    Senior forward Colin Suter had 41 points (15 goals, 26 assists). Sophomore forward Ian Rapp finished with 25 points (8 G, 17 A).

    Defensemen Ben Hamilton, a junior, and Ryan Rapp, a senior, are back on the blue line. Hamilton had 17 assists and 20 points, while Rapp had six goals and 18 assists.

    Barrett (11-5-1) had three shutouts last year.

    “He has been terrific,” Hayes said. “He is a big kid and is a big goalie. But he's also very athletic. He can make saves out of nowhere.”

    He said his team has a lot of competitors and has displayed a lot of chemistry and character.

    “We have a lot of guys capable of making contributions,” Hayes said.

    But he also said his team can't rely on a small group to do the bulk of scoring and is fighting through some early injuries.

    “We need our other forwards to step up their offensive production so teams can't focus on stopping a couple guys. We have three new defensemen who need to be able to step in and provide valuable minutes,” Hayes said.

    Northview has 11 returning starters back from a team that went 31-1-3 overall and won the division title with an 8-0-0 record.

    Jones, who has a 92-34-11 career record, has 22 players and eight seniors.

    Senior winger Drew Crandall finished with 34 points (15 G, 19 A). Junior winger Cody Estrel, who also can play defense, had 22 goals and 24 assists for 46 points.

    Junior forward Jacob Koback racked up 34 points (9 G, 25 A).

    Senior winger Nick Laplante tallied 31 points (15 G, 16 A). Seniors center Zander Pryor and winger Xavier Sudlow also saw time on the varsity.

    Jones said his team is deep up front with three solid lines.

    “But there’s a lot of new faces on the blue lines and between the pipes,” he said. “In some situations it’s simply a matter of reps, in other cases it’s a matter of development.”

    Findlay (18-16-0) looks to build on a foundation it put in place last season and lost only four players to graduation.

    Coach Joe Longo enters his second season with 19 letter winners from last season's team that went 4-4-0 and finished third in the division.

    “From a talent standpoint we are starting from a much better position,” Longo said.

    His top returning players are Andy Martin (20 G, 7 A), Noah Hindall (9 G, 16 A), Drew Thompson (13 G, 7 A), Patrick Hall (2 G, 19 A), Mason Williams (9 G, 8 A), and Ethan Willis (9 G, 7 A).

    Goalie Alex Woolley won 10 of 15 games and had a .900 save percentage last year.

    Longo said he arguably has the deepest goaltending core in Ohio with four goalies that could start in many programs.

    “Alex Woolley has the ability to lead the league,” he said.

    He also said he has a good nucleus to build from that is familiar with the coaching and style of play.

    Longo said he has four solid lines, which will allow his team to play an uptempo game.

    “While we only graduated four players, they were very good leaders and our success this season will be dependent on finding players to assume the leadership role,” he said.

    St. Francis has a new coach with Chris Varga, who served as an assistant under former Brian Kinsella and helped lead the Knights to the state title in 2011.

    The Knights were 12-18-3 last year and 2-6-0 in league play. Among 14 varsity players are many younger players.

    Junior forward Matt Opblinger racked up 37 points with 10 goals and 27 assists last season. Sophomores Zach Poolos, Frank Dillon, and Chris Forrey also saw action last year.

    Poolos had eight points, including seven assists, as a defenseman last year. Dillon, a forward, posted seven points with two goals and five assists. Forrey, a defenseman, had two goals and two assists.

    Junior Geoff Kern and seniors Alex Valiton and Adam Burson also are top returning players.

    Varga said youthfulness is a strength. He also said his team has a good attitude and is committed.

    But he said inexperience, lack of size, and depth are areas of concern.

    “We will come to every contest to compete to the best of our ability,” Varga said. “We have a good freshman goaltender [Kade Phipps], whom we will be building our future around.”

    Bowling Green did not win a conference game last year but longtime coach Dan DeWitt has a large nucleus of returning player from last season.

    “We have a decent mix of veterans at all positions although many are entering their second year,” said DeWitt, who enters his 24th season with a 453-202-8 career record.

    The Bobcats won four state titles in the 1990s but they went 7-19-2 last season.

    There are five seniors among 20 varsity players.

    Senior tri-captains Rob Tyrrell (F), Dakota Bell (F), and Jake DeWitt (D) are four-year starters.

    “We look to be improved offensively from last season, having gained much needed experience from many of our returning forwards,” DeWitt said. “We will have to make sure we have a high 'compete' level game in and game out. Our goal is to have continuous improvement throughout the season.”

    Bedford moves up to the top tier Red Division after winning a NHC White Division regular-season title with a 9-1 record last year.

    Coach Randy Menchaca, who is in his eighth season and has a 110-83-5 career record, led the Mules to a 16-9-0 mark last year.

    He has five starters back, along with eight seniors, and he counts leadership as a strong point.

    Menchaca said he has a strong top line, along with solid goalkeeping as well as 22 players.

    Senior goalie Adam Glick had a 2.43 GAA and .901 save percentage last year.

    Junior forward Dominic Pisanti had 24 goals and 14 assists last year.

    Senior forward Noah Szenderski scored 19 goals and had 21 assists.

    Senior defenseman Kyle Kuhr (15 G, 30 A) and junior forward Michael Pisanti (9 G, 18 A) also chipped in significantly on offense last year.

    But Menchaca said he has many new players, so they will may be intimidated early on.

    “Bedford took the proverbial leap of faith this year by moving to the NHC Red Division,” he said. “This will be our toughest schedule ever. Unlike previous years, there won't be many easy wins, and we will have to make sure that we don't get discouraged. On the other hand, better competition will force the guys to step up their games, which could pay dividends towards the end of the season.”

    Contact Mark Monroe at: mmonroe@theblade.com, 419-724-6354 or on Twitter @MonroeBlade.