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The Northwest Hockey Conference Red Division has ascended to elite status.
A team from northwest Ohio's top league has reached the state championship game in five consecutive seasons and in seven of the last eight years.
Northview, St. Francis de Sales, and St. John's Jesuit have each brought back state championships in the last seven years.
The Titans are pegged as the preseason favorites to repeat as Red Division champs. St. John's has reached the district title game three straight seasons only to be denied a trip to Columbus.
Northview, which is expected to finish second for the second straight season, won the first state title in school history in 2012 and made it back to the final last season.
St. Francis, which won it all in 2011, is predicted to finish third followed by Findlay and Bowling Green.
In 2007, St. John's broke through with the first state hockey title for a Toledo metro team.
But the Titans have experienced a recent dry spell in their efforts to reach Nationwide Arena. St. John's has not won a district title since 2009. The Titans lost in heartbreaking fashion to Northview in the last two district finals and fell to St. Francis in 2011.
Northview has claimed four district titles in the last 10 years, followed by St. Francis with three, St. John's with two, and Bowling Green with one.
“Many view the NHC as the most competitive league in the state and a league that looks like it will be very competitive top to bottom this year,” Findlay coach Joe Longo said.
Here is a look at the NHC Red Division in order of predicted finish based on a preseason coaches’ poll:
St. John’s (26-8-0 overall, 9-1-0 NHC) is loaded with 14 seniors. Depth and defense will be the strengths for the Titans, who have four complete forward lines that are good skaters and can play in any situation.
Coach Mike Hayes enters his 11th season with a 231-97-21 career record.
St. John's is off to a 3-1-1 start, including a win over Michigan power Plymouth. The Titans finished second at the Walsh Jesuit Tournament.
Among 21 players are 14 letter winners who led St. John's to a No. 2 state ranking last year.
Senior goaltender Mike Barrett earned All-NHC first team honors after posting a 1.68 goals-against average. Barrett had 21 wins, including seven shutouts, and finished with a .928 save percentage.
“He will keep us in any game,” Hayes said.
Senior defensemen Ben Hamilton and Dominic Horvath return in front of Barrett. Hamilton scored six goals and had 20 assists to earn all-league second team honors. Horvath had 20 points (6 G, 14 A) and was named NHC honorable mention.
“We return four defensemen from last year which will help keep our goals against down,” Hayes said. “Dominic Horvath and Ben Hamilton both are capable of controlling the game from the back end and can also provide needed offense.”
Junior forward Ian Rapp was second on the team in scoring last season with 67 points (27 G, 40 A). Senior forward Caleb Hauenstein tallied 33 points (9 G, 24 A).
“Rapp will be counted on to provide the bulk of the offense,” Hayes said. “But he has a strong surrounding cast that will make it hard for other teams to focus on just him.”
But no other returning forward had more than 10 goals and several players will be counted on to provide additional offense.
“With strong senior leadership, this team will be very competitive and should be consistently strong,” Hayes said. “This team lacks a lot of natural scorers and will need to win a lot of close games because of it. Because of the depth at forward, if we can get a little out of a lot of guys, the offense will take care of itself.”
Hayes said he has put together by far the most challenging schedule the Titans have ever had with five nonconference games against some of the top teams in Michigan.
“We’ll be battle tested and should be a very strong team at the end,” Hayes said.
Northview (27-7-1, 8-1-1) represented the district at the state tournament for the fourth time in the last eight seasons and third time in the last four seasons.
The Wildcats ended the Titans' season last year with a unbelievable late rally. Northview trailed St. John's 2-1 with 3:51 left when Zander Pryor scored twice in 14 seconds to lift the Wildcats to an improbable 3-2 win at Tam-O-Shanter.
The Wildcats reached the state final but lost 3-1 to Shaker Heights.
In 2012, Northview held off St. John's 2-1 to win the district title game.
Northview is off to a 3-2-0 start this season under Mike Jones, who has compiled a 115-39-12 record in six seasons.
The Wildcats have 10 seniors and 11 starters returning.
Senior defenseman Cody Estrel earned All-NHC first-team honors after recording 34 points (19 G, 15 A).
Senior goalie David Marsh is back after being named to the all-league second team. Marsh (14-4-0) had a 2.12 GAA and .910 save percentage. Junior Preston Due split time in net with Marsh.
“We have two veteran goalies that will have to play big for us,” Jones said.
Senior defenseman Kooper Carter finished with 18 points (3 G, 15 A), senior center Caleb Rau had 21 (11 G, 10 A) and senior defenseman Bailey Breitigam finished with 17 (6 G, 11 A).
Jones said his team's strengths should also be scoring throughout the top few lines and a tireless work ethic.
He said mental strength and toughness may be a concern.
“With a lot of turnover from the last two years’ teams, there are plenty of new faces that are still learning how to do things the right way,” Jones said. “We look forward to a new challenge this year and need to get better on a daily basis.”
St. Francis (7-18-4, 2-7-1) has 20 players for second-year coach Chris Varga and is off to a 2-2-1 start.
Senior center Matt Opblinger returns after scoring 23 goals and dishing out 30 assists. Opblinger earned All-NBC second team honors.
Junior forward Rick Kwapich (19 goals and 22 assists) and sophomore forward Mike White (19 G, 17 A) also were big contributors last season.
Both Opblinger and Kwapich had a plus-minus rating of plus-16.
Senior forward Geoff Kern (6-1, 175) and junior defenseman Zach Poolos (6-1, 205) bring good size to the lineup. Kern had seven goals and nine assists. Poolos had 12 assists.
Sophomore goaltender Kade Phipps had a 3.70 goals-against average and a .876 save percentage.
“We will play hard to the whistle,” Varga said. “We will compete every contest with our youth and work ethic.”
Varga said the Knights are young defensively and will make mistakes.
“Hopefully they will learn from them as the season progresses,” he said.
Varga was an assistant under former St. Francis coach Brian Kinsella, who led the Knights to their first state title in 2011. Varga also coached at Bedford for four seasons.
“We are still very young,” Varga said. “We will come to the rink to compete for three periods. Our kids will battle hard for the puck and play for their teammates every game.”
Findlay (24-11-1, 6-4-0) has nine seniors among 21 players and 16 letter winners. The Trojans last reached the state final four in 2002.
Coach Joe Longo, who has a 42-27-1 in three seasons at the helm, lost 11 seniors to graduation.
“We are not looking at this as a rebuilding year as we have 13 returning juniors and seniors whom contributed significantly last year,” Longo said.
The Trojans, who are 2-3-0 this year, ended last season ranked No. 15 in the state. “We had set our sights on going deeper into the state tournament,” Longo said.
“This year we have taken a different approach and have reworked our schedule to significantly increase the level of competition,” he said. “Our goal is to play one of the most competitive schedules in the state so that we are better prepared going into the end of the season.”
He said from a talent standpoint Findlay is starting from a good position.
Senior forward Noah Hindall and senior defenseman A.J. Bishop are the team captains.
Hindall had 21 goals and 23 assists and was a plus-34. Bishop had six goals and five assists and was plus-29.
Junior forward Conner Curlis (20 G, 26 A) junior forward Mason Williams (9 G, 24 A), senior defenseman Mitch Perry (1 G, 8 A), and junior defenseman Adam Weems (2 G, 6 A) also are back.
Junior goalie Joe Longo (7-1-2) had a .906 save percentage. He played in 18 games the last two seasons. Logan Bern, also a junior, will play in net.
On offense Findlay must replace significant offensive production.
“We will have three solid lines which will provide a significant advantage in our ability to play an uptempo, high-speed game,” Longo said.
On defense, the Trojans have four returning defensemen that are expected to give them a strong core. Senior Lucas Stump joins Weems, Perry, and Bishop in a group that was a collective plus-107.
Bowling Green (15-16-1, 3-7-0) won four state titles in the 1990s and the Bobcats were the first team to bring a championship to northwest Ohio. The Bobcats made 10 consecutive final four appearances from 1995-2004.
Longtime coach Dan DeWitt enters his 25th season with a 468-218-9 record. The Bobcats are 4-2-0 in the early going.
“We look to build on the improvements and modest success from last season,” DeWitt said. “While still being a relatively young team being a year older and stronger will help us at both ends of the ice.”
Among 20 players are four seniors.
Senior captain Phil Rich, a forward, racked up 49 points (21 G, 28 A). Senior captain Drew Mankowski, a defenseman, returns after posting 19 points (18 assists).
Sophomore Grant DeWitt tallied 42 points with 16 goals and 26 assists as a freshman.
Senior forward Keegan Obrien (16 G, 10 A) also is back along with junior forward Jeremy Chamber (14 G, 11 A).
Five of six defensemen return along with junior goalie Tanner Fausnaugh.
“We have shown better offensive skills and production throughout the preseason,” DeWitt said.