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TOP HOCKEY TEAMS: 25 teams to watch out for in the 2019-20 MHSAA hockey season

By: BEN SZILAGY, December 19, 2019, 11:24 am

Teams across the state of Michigan all seek a wooden mitten at the end of the year on the ice of USA Hockey Arena. High School hockey is one of the few sports where you can be tested every game to the sheer amount of parity in the sport. Three years ago, Livonia Churchill embodied that spirit. 

While it’s too early to know if there’s another team in the state that can surprise all of us and make a deep run, here are teams in the state that have the best chance to hoist a wooden mitten at season’s end:

(in alphabetical order; last year’s record, finish in parentheses) 

Allen Park (12-11-2, lost to Ann Arbor Fr. Gabriel Richard in D3 regional opener) — The Jags have come out of the gate like gangbusters to a 7-2 record early this season, and have definitely grabbed my attention. Division 3 is very, very deep and the Jags are further proof of this. AP is led by Jaydon Miller, Nate Magier, Brendan Rachfal, and will only be further battle tested as the year goes on.

Ann Arbor Fr. Gabriel Richard (19-8-1, lost to Riverview Gabriel Richard in D3 quarters) — Coach Robert had his team rolling last year in the playoffs before it lost to Riverview Gabriel Richard in the quarterfinals. This team too can be close to USA Hockey Arena. Just matters on the draw it receives. D3 is loaded, just like D2. A tough draw in districts could make a deep run stop before it starts.

Bay Reps (23-6, lost to Saginaw Heritage in D1 semifinals) — Made a deep run last year, and this year after a strong start should be considered for another. The Bay Reps are a balanced team with players from multiple communities that have formed a bond built around winning. Don’t be surprised if the Bay Reps are back at USA Hockey Arena.

Birmingham Brother Rice (16-8-4, lost to Hartland in D2 semis) — The Warriors are a team that you cannot forget about. Once you do, they’ll be there to splash some ice shavings in your face for a wake-up call. Just ask Catholic Central, Stevenson, and Hartland, teams that Rice has taken to the limit early this season. Coach Kenny Chaput has weapons in Ryan Murphy (18 points this season already), DJ Dixon (17 points) and Nick Marone to rely on in big games. Add Cooper Duncan, and you have a very, hard out in the playoffs.

Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook-Kingswood (16-10-1, lost to Detroit Country Day in D3 regional semifinals) — Cranbrook has floated around between divisions recently, but the Cranes have found themselves back in D3. So far under new head coach John LaFontaine the Cranes have played a tough schedule that will have them battle tested come playoff time. Jack Wineman has been a major offensive output early, and a name that could creep up in POY conversations.

Brighton (13-13-1, lost to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in D1 regional semis) — Brighton needs to still be near the top of the conversation when it comes to teams that can play at USA Hockey this season. Coaching is a big reason why. With two great minds in Paul Moggach and Kurt Kivisto, and POY candidate Will Jentz, the Bulldogs can easily overcome a slow start to the season and make noise in the playoffs.

Calumet (20-7, lost to Houghton in D3 regional finals) — Through their first six games, the Copper Kings outscored their opponents 27-5 with four shutouts. The defenders of the north wall have been playing well the past couple of years. POY Candidate Tanner Rowe has been playing at a high level his entire career, and is joined by Scott and Dean Loukas that mounts a formidable scoring attack. Add the play of Alex Studebaker, and the Copper Kings can be the kings of D3 when the season is over. 

Detroit Country Day (24-4-2, won D3 title) — Coach Novak’s team has had a POY candidate each of the last two seasons, and have another one in defensemen Jacob Thomas. The Yellowjackets have seasoned players to go along with Thomas in Lucas Krol and Dallas Hood. Country Day plays with grit, and can get physical when needed. As winners of back-to-back state titles, they are among the first D3 teams in the conversation for this year’s title.

Detroit U-D Jesuit (20-9-1, lost to Detroit Country Day in D3 quarters) — The Cubs have been formidable in the playoffs recently, and coaches around the state are saying this could be one of the best Cubs teams Jesuit has had. An eye opener this season was a win over Trenton at Hazel Park early on, and took GPS to the limit early, which shows potential for a deep playoff run in D3.

Grand Rapids Catholic Central (15-11-1, lost to East Grand Rapids in D3 regional semifinals) — Coach Slobodnik has another quality squad, as his Cougars are off to a very respectable start, and led by the outstanding Defenseman Jacob Onstott. As the season goes on we’ll see how GRCC plays, but with Onstott leading the way, this team can be dangerous in D3.

Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central (17-6-2, lost to Jackson Lumen Christi in D3 regional semifinals) — Rangers lead the way, all the way, right? Well the Rangers have a POY candidate in Mason Kelly who already has eight goals this season. Cole Munger has chipped in with four goals as well. Those two could propel Central to a nice run in D3.

Grandville (7-19, lost to Byron Center in D1 regional semis) — The Bulldogs have always been a team in D1 that can make a deep run. Coach Joel Breazeale and his squad made a statement on this new campaign with a five-game win streak after dropping the season opener.

Grosse Pointe South (7-18-2, lost to Warren De La Salle in D3 regional opener) — The Blue Devils made it on the list after what they showed at the KLAA/ MIHL Showcase this past weekend. These kids can flat out play. Whether it’s Keegan Spitz, Aaron Vyletle, or Adam Strehlke, scoring can come from anywhere. Plus the back line is full of players who can protect the middle, and skate with the puck on the breakout. Coach Moretz has a solid bunch.

Hartland (25-4, won D2 title) — The defending Division 2 champions have passed most of their early tests this season with flying colors. Coach Rick Gadwa has still another solid team with defensemen Dakota Kott and forward Adam Pietila as rock solid cornerstones to build from. Minor concern is goaltending, but Ryan Piros has played well early, and is building confidence.

Holland West Ottawa (16-10, lost to Jenison in D1 regional semis) — WO is a very respectable team this season. Coach Duckworth has a solid team with balanced scoring up and down the roster. The only pause is recently they’ve been getting into higher scoring games. Water could be finding its level, or this could just be an anomaly. Either way, WO has a shot to make a nice run in the playoffs from the west side of the state.

Houghton (23-6-1, lost to Detroit Country Day in D3 title game) — The Gremlins have been impressive this year, and was the state finalist last year after many thought they could solve Sam Evola and Country Day. This year’s team is just as good as Coach Markham has a solid rotation of goal scorers, and a solid goaltender in Jimmy Pietila in net with a healthy GAA of 1.06 with two shutouts. 

Livonia Stevenson (21-6-1, lost to Trenton in D1 quarters) — Noticing a theme here? Yes D2 is loaded, and Coach Mitchell’s team is no different. The Spartans’ super sophomores from last year are a year older and have a wealth of experience at their disposal, and POY candidate Seth Lause is a tremendous leader as well. The only question headed into the season was goaltending, and Stevenson’s great coaching staff have molded Brenden Stroble into a fine goaltender. The only question the Spartans need to solve is Trenton in the playoffs. The Trojans have ended the Spartans’ season in the second season in back-to-back years. If they get over the hump, USA Hockey Arena is easily attainable.  

Marquette (21-7-1, lost to Trenton in D1 semis) — We know since there isn’t seeding in the playoffs for hockey, it’s hard to see a team from the UP travel to SE Michigan. But that’s where Marquette comes into play. The Redmen have battled tough early this season and have taken D3 Powers Houghton and Calumet to one-goal games in losses. Facing a deficit, the Redmen have scorers in Gaetano Cammarata, Cooper Anderson, Dylan Baldwin, Jakob Peterson that can put them back in any game this season.

Midland Dow (16-9, lost to Big Rapids in D3 regional opener) — The Chargers are undefeated with wins against respectable programs like Lake Orion, Davison and others. Third-year player Luke Blasy has been playing exceptionally well all season long, and is joined by Billy VanSumeren and Lucas Churchfield for a balanced attack.

Novi Detroit Catholic Central (29-1-1, won D1 title) — The Shamrocks have been a part of the state finals picture six of the last seven years, including a three-peat in that span with three different head coaches. Coach Brandon Kaleniecki has another crop of great players including POY candidate Kyle Gaffney at his disposal that can score when it needs to (almost at will), and the Shamrocks play with a great forecheck and back-check that can suffocate an offense. It’s hard to imagine a finals game without CC playing in it.

Riverview Gabriel Richard (15-11-1, lost to Houghton in D3 semis) — Coach DeSana always has his teams ready. But are they ready to take the next step? Wins over Woodhaven, St Mary’s and U-D Jesuit early on says yes. The Pioneers have Austin Harrison and Nathan Vazquez spearheading the offense after Chance DeSana graduated. This is a team that can make a deep run in the playoffs, don’t be surprised if they are in position to hoist a wooden mitten.

Saginaw Heritage (28-3, lost to Novi Detroit Catholic Central in D1 title game) — Let’s take a swing back to D1 and look at the runner up for the past two seasons in Heritage. The Hawks are always going to be a solid club that plays disciplined hockey with JJ Bamberger at the helm. They’ve only played a small number of games, so its hard to get a true read on the team, but Heritage’s reputation proceeds them.

Salem (14-13, lost to Novi Detroit Catholic Central in D1 quarters) — Coach Ossenmacher’s Rocks haven’t lost in the state of Michigan this season with wins over traditional powers Cranbrook, St. Mary’s, and Brighton. Scoring has been balanced across the roster, and the Rocks have Dante Doute back from injury, who missed the CK Thanksgiving Tournament. Rem VanWert in net has been very soild this season. The only question for Salem is the draw it will get with the MHSAA. The Rocks could get Catholic Central in Districts, and that could spell doom for a very, very good Salem team. It’s why you hear conversations of seeding in the MHSAA playoffs when it comes to hockey.

Traverse City Central (13-13, lost to Petoskey in D2 regional semis) — With an historic coach in Chris Givens, this is another team that can make a run for a state title from the west side of the state. Ethan Vander Roest, Nick Sommerfield and Will Dawson lead the Trojans this season. Even though this team is on the younger side, they’ve hung with every team this season. It might be tough to come out of the west, but Central could do it.

Trenton (25-5-1, lost to Hartland in D2 title game) — The Trojans belong here because they’ve been to the finals in back-to-back years. Plus Coach Clements has the best goaltender in the state in Joey Cormier protecting his team. You can always ride a hot goaltender to USA Hockey Arena. But the Trojans have great scoring weapons, too, in Hunter Allen and Collin Preston.