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Metro Detroit

November 26, 2013

MIHL set to embark on 15th season with teams as strong as ever

By Mike Moore
C & G Sports Writer

It began with a collection of four teams.

In the first year, an up-and-coming squad from Redford Catholic Central went unbeaten to claim the league title.

Another, from a football school named Brother Rice, went winless.

Some 15 years later, plenty has changed, while plenty remains the same.

Catholic Central has moved to Novi. Rice has become dominant on the ice, and as the Michigan Interscholastic Hockey League enters its 15th season of existence, it does so featuring 10 programs known for postseason accolades.

So, with the 2013-14 season upon us, here’s a look at some of the local teams.

Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook-Kingswood
Last season’s record: 28-2-1 overall, 12-0-1 North Division (first); won Division 3 state title.

Ice chips: The 2012-13 Cranes were simply the best, probably in any division of the state.

They won 12 of 13 games in the North Division, with one tie against Brother Rice.

After falling to Hill Academy (Canada) in the MIHL Showcase, the Cranes won 11 straight games to close out the season, capped with a 4-2 victory against Sault Ste. Marie in the D-3 state final.

The title was the 16th for the Cranes in program history, culminating one of the most successful and dominant seasons the school has ever known.

And now for the encore.

“It’s going to be tough to duplicate last season,” coach Andy Weidenbach said with a laugh. “Last year’s group was so motivated after losing early in the playoffs the year before. They came into the season with something to prove. This team is a little different. We have some new guys and a little different feel.”

Plenty of talent is back on the ice from last year’s squad.

The top two lines should produce offensively, while the team’s top-four defensemen and all three goalies are back in the mix.

“We’re going to be very strong,” Weidenbach said.

The Cranes’ coaching staff even got a bolster when Scott Lock, who coached at Grosse Pointe North for the past 15 seasons, was brought on to serve as an assistant.

Coach’s take: “We’re very optimistic about this team and about the type of season I think we can have,” Weidenbach said. “We’ve got some guys who’ve been through it before and some new guys that are learning the system pretty well. I’m exited to see what this team is capable of.”

Birmingham Brother Rice
Last season’s record: 22-4-2 overall, 9-2-2 North Division (third); lost to Catholic Central in D-1 regional final.

Ice chips: Rarely is a season that included 22 wins considered a disappointment, and maybe that’s too harsh a term to use on the Warriors, but this was a team set on claiming a D-1 state title last year, and dropping the regional final to Catholic Central (3-1) was a tough.

“Looking back, it’s a probably a game we win if we’re playing the way we can,” coach Lou Schmidt Jr. said. “But looking forward, we have to learn from it. We’re in the same regional again this year, and we want to put ourselves in a position to be playing our best hockey then.”

The Warriors are young but are loaded with experience.

Fourteen players from last year’s roster are back in the mix and, after placing third in the MIHL’s North Division, have a strong chance to contend for the top spot.

“I think for us, the key is the guys we brought back,” Schmidt said. “We have guys who, at a young age, contributed at a high level. It’s on them to do that again.”

While the Warriors are young up front, they still possess some scorers.

The strength may be in the back, though, with Bobby Cross anchoring the defense and Jack Bowman between the pipes.

The senior was 19-4 last year, with a 2.13 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage.

Coach’s take: “I think, as always, the MIHL is going to be very tough,” Schmidt said. “We’ve also added some good teams to the schedule, like Brighton (High) and (Livonia) Stevenson. But when you’re playing Cranbrook twice and Catholic Central twice, it makes things tough. It gets you ready for what’s coming in the playoffs.”

Orchard Lake St. Mary’s
Last season’s record: 13-12-1 overall, 5-7-1 North Division (fourth); lost to Brother Rice in D-1 preregional.

Ice chips: There aren’t many years when St. Mary’s has to rebuild, but last winter may have been just that for the Eaglets.

A team loaded with youth, it finished roughly .500 and was out of the playoffs on the first night.

With 15 guys back, expect bigger and better results this time around.

“I think we have the chance to be a very competitive team,” coach Brian Klanow said. “With 15 guys back, they’re more experienced, stronger, bigger and a year smarter. That’s going to be key.”

Klanow said the numbers of wins and losses during the regular season is not something with which he concerns himself.

But looking ahead to the postseason, he’s got some big expectations.

“This team has a chance to win a state title,” Klanow said. “They have the senior leadership you need. It’s a goal they all have in the locker room.”

The Eaglets will be strong up and down the ice, but their strength may be in goal.

Will Ulrich, who played a team-high 14 games last season, returns with Andrew Kormos, who was 3-0-0 and allowed just two goals in four games last season with the varsity.

Coach’s take: “I like what I see so far,” Klanow said. “It’s still early, and we are taking things one day at a time, but we have some skilled players, some great goaltending and guys that have some great potential.”

Grosse Pointe North
Last season’s record: 16-11-0 overall, 8-5-0 South Division (first); lost to University of Detroit Jesuit in D-1 preregional.

Ice chips: A South Division title promptly gave way to an opening-round playoff exit last season for the Norsemen.

Half the roster then graduated, and coach Scott Lock was not retained by the school.

Other than that, everything is the same.

“There’s going to be some growing pains,” first-year coach Brad Case said. “We’re very young, so the veterans we do have back, we’re going to have to rely on.”

Guys with varsity experience, like Nick Cusmano, Vince Romanelli and Eddie Nepi, to name a few, will be key as the transition unfolds.

Case, who played for Lock in the 1999-2000 season, said he will need time to adjust, as well.

But the Norsemen have traditionally been a team that has played its best during the postseason, last year being the exception.

In 2012, for example, they were a sub-.500 team in the regular season and then rolled to the D-2 championship game.

Another change, though, is the playoff format itself.

North will be in the D-3 bracket this winter, playing in the University of Liggett preregional, with a Cranbrook squad likely waiting in the regional final.

Coach’s take: “There’s going to be a focus on improvement every single day,” Case said. “The schedule we play is so tough, but if we stay positive and play as a team, the competition will get us ready for a nice run in the playoffs. We plan to have some fun, work hard and play smart hockey. The rest will take case of itself.”

Warren De La Salle
Last season’s record: 6-20-0 overall, 2-11-0 South Division (fourth); lost to Grosse Pointe South in D-2 regional semifinal.

Ice chips: Young and inexperienced, last year was an all-out rebuild for De La Salle.

The team won just six games, and just two in the South Division.

That should change this winter.

“We have a group of kids that came into the program young and talented, and now have the chance to take off,” coach Dan Barry said. “The attitude is the biggest thing. Last year, I think we had too many individuals trying to come together. This year, we can already see that team concept.”

The Pilots are set to see some good teams right off the bat.

After eight consecutive seasons of winning the Traverse City tournament, De La Salle was on the outside looking in last year.

“That’s the first goal this year,” Barry said with a laugh. “Hopefully, that helps us get back on track.”

With a good number of guys back in the mix, inexperience shouldn’t be an issue.

“It’s going to be a day-by-day approach,” Barry said. “It’s about getting better each time out.”

Coach’s take: ­“Ideally, if we can find a way to get back into the Catholic League playoffs, that’s a good place to start,” Barry said. “That’s one of the main goals off the bat. … Things need to be better this year, though, definitely. I don’t think some of these guys were ready for the level of competition we were going to face. They know what to expect this time around. They can anticipate it and be ready to go.”

Novi Detroit Catholic Central
Last season’s record: 22-7-0 overall, 10-3-0 North Division (second); lost to Brighton High in D-1 final.

Ice chips: After a run to the state final last year, it was an offseason of change and heartbreak for the Shamrocks.

A number of seniors graduated from the squad, while a few other players left the team to play at the junior level.

Tragedy then struck in early October when senior forward Matt Sorisho was paralyzed from the waist down after slamming into the boards during his fall league.

Todd Johnson also stepped down as head coach, giving way to Doug Atami as the headman.

“We’re only bringing back five guys that were with us all of last year,” Atami said. “We’re not necessarily a young team, but we are kind of inexperienced.”

The Shamrocks are also without a consistent goal-scorer, having to replace Sorisho, Michael Babcock and Charlie Green, the top-three point producers a year ago.

Much of the season so far has been spent visiting Sorisho in the hospital, organizing a fundraiser the MIHL put on Nov. 20, and helping Sorisho’s family remodel their Novi home.

But with Sorisho out of the hospital, even visiting the Shamrocks on the bench and in the locker room during their first scrimmage of the season, Atami said his guys are ready to go.

“It’s a great group of kids,” he explained. “They’ve had a lot to deal with and a lot to adjust to already, but they’re ready to go out and make the most of this season.”

Coach’s take: “We’re going to be a different team than we have been in the sense we’re not going to go out and just dominate,” Atami said. “But these guys are going to battle.”

The Hockey Has A Heart origination is accepting donations for the Matt Sorisho Trust Fund. Anyone interested in contributing to the fund can do so at www.hockeyhas heart.com. All money raised will be donated to help offset medical expenses, as well as renovations made to accommodate Sorisho at home.

Port Huron Northern
Last season’s record: 15-14-1 overall, 3-9-1 North Division (fifth); lost to Hartland High in D-2 semifinal.

Ice chips: The North Division wasn’t kind to Huskies last season, as they won just three times. But it certainly prepared the guys from Northern for a playoff run when they reached Compuware and the D-2 semifinals for the second season in a row.

Doing that for a third time, or climbing out of the North basement for that matter, will be a tall task, considering they returned just one center from last year’s roster.

“We have to be strong defensively and shut things down in front of our own net,” coach Daryel McCarrel said. “Offensively, we’re young, but we’re going to have to be aggressive.”

Northern is typically a team that starts slow and then turns things on as the season goes along.

McCarrel isn’t so much a fan of it but tried to keep it in perspective.

“The whole thing about this league is finding a way to get better every night,” he said. “Whether you’re winning 2-1 or losing 2-1, it’s going to be key for us to stay positive and keep the attitudes right.”

It’s an approach that’s worked.

Northern, despite its struggles in league play, has won three consecutive regional titles.

Coach’s take: “What we’re looking for is improvement, in every section of the season,” McCarrel said. “We break it down to three sections, with eight games each. The last eight, especially, is focused on where we are and how we take that next step, come playoff time. ... These guys are motivated. They understand the experience of being in the semifinals and how we want to go beyond that. They aren’t going to have that deer-in-headlights look.”

University of Detroit Jesuit
Last season’s record: 19-9-1 overall, 7-5-1 South Division (second); lost to Brighton High in D-1 semifinal.

Ice chips: The Cubs won nine games in a row before finally falling to Brighton in last year’s D-1 semifinal and, despite graduating 13 players from that team, brought back a good mix that has the look of a team that could make a similar run.

“I hope to be just as competitive as we were,” coach Rick Bennetts said.

The biggest departure was Greg Pefley, who led the Cubs with 26 goals and 37 assists.

But Tommy Apap is back after scoring 17 goals and dishing out 20 assists.

The defense is experienced, and goalie Jake Deines returns after seeing limited time with the varsity club.

“And he has a chance to be an excellent goaltender,” Bennetts said.

Coach’s take: “We’ve got a lot of skill and grind on this roster, especially with the seniors,” Bennetts said. “We have some younger guys that are ready to contribute — guys that have played at the higher levels in their travel leagues. The defensive group looks strong, and we expect to have some good goaltending.”

“We have such a tough schedule, so if we can find ways to stay healthy, I think this is a team that’s going to get better as the season moves on,” he added. “This is a good group: a bunch of guys that really like each other and are united in what they want to do.”

Trenton High
Last season’s record: 15-12-1 overall, 4-8-1 South Division (third); lost to Livonia Stevenson in D-2 regional final.

Ice chips: For a team that won five D-2 state titles from 2003-2010, last season was a humbling, but somewhat expected, experience.

The Trojans were loaded with youth after graduating nearly everyone from the team in 2012.

Now, with 12 guys back in the mix, four of the top-six forwards included, things should return to normal.

“We kind of knew what last year was going to be about,” coach Mike Turner said. “The inexperience was too much. But we expect it to be better this season.”

The key, he added, is consistency.

While the Trojans’ record was substantially one-sided, the team had plenty of chances to win games it ended up losing.

On five separate occasions, Trenton had a third-period lead, only to lose the advantage and, eventually, the game.

“It’s about playing to the end,” Turner said. “That’s the focus.”

Coach’s take: “You just hope the experience gets us off to a faster start than we had last year,” Turner said of the season. “Time will tell. I think we have the pieces in place to have a real strong year.”

Wyandotte Roosevelt
Last season’s record: 8-17-1 overall, 1-11-1 South Division (fifth); lost to Woodhaven in D-2 preregional.

Ice chips: In 2011, these were the champions of Division 2.

Two years later, it was a team winning only eight games.

“I think after being so successful two years ago, there was a mentality that things would just be handed to us,” coach Mike Quint said. “That isn’t the case.”

With a new group and a fresh attitude, Quint said he expects things to get back to normal this winter.

“We see plenty of potential already,” he explained. “There’s a real good attitude with this group that I like.”

Still, getting out of last place in the South won’t be easy.

The Bears have a very young team, with two freshmen, nine sophomores, six juniors and just four seniors.

“Absolutely have to be better, though,” Quint said. “We need to find ways to keep games tighter and find ways to win more than we lost.”

Coach’s take: “If we can be around the .500 mark, and be in every game, that’s the key right now,” Quint said of this season. “We’re so young, and when you get to the playoffs, you never know what could happen. The hope is, by the time the (playoffs) rolls around, we’re playing our best hockey and ready to do some of the things these guys are capable of.”

You can reach C & G Sports Writer Mike Moore at mmoore@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1038. Twitter Follow Mike on Twitter.