Whitmer looks to win the NHC White Division American Conference with top players (from left) Devin Herzig, Aaron Thoman, Hunter Carr, Cody Calendine, and Wesley Redmond. The Panthers are off to a 4-4 start this season.
With seven starters back from a successful season, Whitmer gets the nod as the favorite in the Northwest Hockey Conference White Division’s American Conference.
Maumee captured the title last season and went on to win the White Division playoff championship by defeating National Conference champion Anthony Wayne 5-4.
The preseason coaches poll puts both Panther teams — Whitmer and Maumee — at the top of this year’s list for title contenders.
Here’s a look at the teams in predicted order of finish:
Whitmer is coming off a strong season after finishing 18-12 overall, 9-4 in the White Division.
Former Anthony Wayne coach Troy Boze takes over the program and is looking to continue the winning ways.
The Panthers have 16 returning players including seven starters.
"Our strength is our leadership from the seniors and returning players," Boze said, whose team began the week with a 4-4 overall record. "Our success is going to depend on how they perform and stay disciplined."
Cody Calendine, a 5-foot-11, 160-pound senior forward, leads one of the most experienced teams competing in the American Conference. He began the week with a team-high 28 points after scoring 12 goals and 16 assists this season.
Devin Herzig (5-5, 150) is also a talented senior forward expected to help the Panthers resume winning under a new coach.
Herzig has also tallied 12 goals to go along with seven assists.
Hunter Carr (6-2, 170), a senior, is currently the team's top scoring threat after tallying a team-leading 14 goals and four assists.
Aaron Thoman (6-0, 195) has scored six goals and accounted for five assists. Freshman Wesley Redmond has contributed right away, tallying six assists.
Cody Calendine already has 12 goals and 16 assists in eight games for Whitmer this season.
Maumee (22-9, 13-0) entered the season optimistic after experiencing a stellar 2012-13 campaign.
The Panthers have 16 players back including four starters.
The Panthers expect to be in the mix for another title, according to Maumee first-year coach Trevor Wolfe.
"But we lost a lot of scoring from last year and our forwards will need to develop quickly," Wolfe said.
The Panthers are leaning on seniors Steve Klocko (goalie), Alex Wagener (forward), and Austin Callahan (defenseman), as well as juniors Adam Butler (forward) and Mike Foreman (defenseman).
Sophomore defenseman Jared Birt has also been a steady contributor to a team that is off to a 3-3 start this season.
How well the Panthers play defense will determine their level of success this year.
"We will be strong on defense and goal," Wolfe said.
Clay (11-22-1, 6-7) figures to be a more competitive team this season.
Fifth-year coach Mike Heck is working with a team that has 12 returning players.
Establishing team cohesion is key to success, according to Heck.
"We have a lot of individual talent, but we need to bring that talent together and work as a team," Heck said.
Seniors Andrew Pappas (5-11, 130), Jake Woodrum (6-2, 225) and Dylan Berg (6-0, 200) are among the Eagles' top returners. Juniors Devin Gabella (6-0, 200) and Andrew Sterling (6-3, 175) are also expectd to be key contributors in helping Clay make strides this season.
Springfield (3-20, 3-11) first-year coach Ed Kretz may be new as head coach of the Blue Devils, but he's more than familiar with the players.
Kretz spent the last six seasons as the assistant coach. Springfiled has six returning starters.
"I expect for us to be about middle of the pack," Kretz said. "Hopefully, we'll be around .500. We're really working on playing team-style hockey."
Senior forward Josh Willson, a four-year varsity player, is the most experienced member of the team. Junior forwards Grant LeVeck and Jared Thomas are also returning starters. Sophomores Brendan Kretz, Adam Vandergriff, Erik Ginier and Cameron O'Neill are being given a chance to make their mark.
Gaining experience will be key to how quickly the Blue Devils develop as a consistent competitor, according to their coach.
"We'd like to bring it all together as a team, to be able to have all five guys skating together," coach Kretz said. "Obviously, we have more work involved. We're learning."
Ottawa Hills coach Derek Helmke is optimistic about the Green Bears being more competitive in his second season as coach.
Coming off a season in which they finished 4-20 (2-12), Ottawa Hills returns seven starters.
Senior forward Ben Bogart, along with juniors Charlie Sandberg, Daniel Intrator, Darcy Davis and Kaleb Konoff, are the top returners .
"We graduated a lot of talent last season," Helmke said. "We may struggle early on as players attempt to fill leadership rolls.
"We also have a number of newcomers to the sport of hockey. I expect them to start out slow, but develop throughout the season."
Helmke thinks the Green Bears defense, particularly Konoff, a 6-1, 170-pound goaltender, is a key component to becoming a more competitive team.
"I think this is going to be a competitive season," Helmke said. "There's definitely going to be a group of teams at the top and a group of teams at the bottom."