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With 19 varsity veterans back, Berkley hockey sees potential soar

By: Mike Moore | Woodward Talk | Published December 14, 2015

 Zach Leonard was one of the top scorers that Berkley Unified had last season. When asked about bringing back 19 varsity veterans, he said, “We kind of get to skip the basics and get right to it.”

Zach Leonard was one of the top scorers that Berkley Unified had last season. When asked about bringing back 19 varsity veterans, he said, “We kind of get to skip the basics and get right to it.”

Photo by Donna Dalziel

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BERKLEY — There’s a redundancy with the roster that Jeff Fleming loves.

There’s a familiarity in the locker room unlike anything he, or most coaches, will ever see.

Last year’s Berkley Unified hockey team featured 22 players, won 16 games and took eventual Division 2 state champ Birmingham Brother Rice down to the wire in the regional round, eventually falling 4-3 in a classic postseason battle.

And of that group of 22 players, 19 are back in the mix for the 2015-16 version of the Bears.

“We don’t have one new face,” Fleming said with a laugh. “Never coached a team with this many kids back. It’s just something I’ve never seen and likely will never see again.”

“It’s fantastic,” senior Ian Melrose said. “It’s like a family around this team. We hang out all the time. It’s better with everyone back than having to adjust and get systems down when you have a ton of new guys.”

The 19-person roster isn’t just one used to varsity hockey — it’s one accustomed to winning.

The guys finished 16-9-1 a year ago, taking second place in the Oakland Activities Association Red Division with a 9-3-0 record.

That finish came a year after going 20-7-2 and winning the program its first regional title in the 2014 postseason.

A good number of this year’s roster was part of that squad as well.

“We’ve had some good success with this group,” Fleming said. “We’ve had to deal with some adversity, and when you bring back experienced kids who’ve been through all that, that’s an advantage. There shouldn’t be much of a learning curve on expectations and systems.”

“I think it gives us that step up right off the bat,” senior Zach Leonard said. “We’re not teaching new kids new things. We kind of get to skip the basics and get right to it.”

And there’s the biggest advantage with this group, one that’s been together for the better part of three seasons.

There’s no back-to-basics when the season starts.

Roles are defined.

Goals are clear.

And maybe more importantly, as Leonard put it, there’s a certain chemistry with this group that few teams will understand.

“I don’t know if we’re the best team Berkley’s had based on talent, but when you include the feel this team has, the family-type atmosphere, the way we get along, it’s just something different,” Leonard explained. “My sophomore year had more talent, but there’s something about this team that could make us a better group.”

The Bears (3-1-0 at press time) have plenty of talent on the ice this winter.

Melrose is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the area, coming off a junior season where he recorded 35 goals and 32 assists.

Leonard finished with 26 goals and 23 assists on a team that averaged 4.9 goals per game a year ago.

The defense and goaltending should improve too, after giving up roughly 3.3 goals per game.

“We expect to compete for an OAA Red title and then make that run come playoff time,” Fleming said simply. “It’s the same goals every year for this program.”

“We have the potential to do whatever we want,” Melrose said. “It’s a matter of working to get past a team like Brother Rice, or whoever we face, and we can. We have no doubt in our mind about that.”

Fleming has been with Berkley for the long haul, building the program from one that was often overlooked to one that now expects to compete in the OAA Red and make a playoff run.

Asked what this year’s group, with all its talent and experience, is capable of, he said simply, “It’s up to our players.”

“I’ve been saying that to them since the summer. They hold their own destiny,” he continued. “They understand there will be ups and downs. They have to realize they can’t get too high or too low. The success we’ve had in the past doesn’t matter and doesn’t change our identity. We’re going to come to the rink every day and work very hard. … We’ve put a target on our back, one we’ve gone out and earned, so the days of us sneaking up on anybody are over.”

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