High school hockey tournament preview: Chelsea, Pioneer favorites to advance
Jeff Sainlar I AnnArbor.com
It's been a bit of a down year for high school hockey in Washtenaw County, with a majority of the teams' records hovering around the .500 mark or below.
Only Chelsea and Pioneer are more than three games above .500 entering the MHSAA state tournament, which starts Monday.
Chelsea finished the year with 19 wins, including nine of its last 10 entering the playoffs. Coach Don Wright has plenty of experience on his roster and, with a first-round bye in a Division 3 regional, the Bulldogs will have a prime opportunity to make to the state quarterfinals.
Pioneer, Dexter, Saline and Father Gabriel Richard each have shown an ability to compete with tough teams this season while young teams at Skyline and Huron are looking forward to the postseason as a chance to upset a nearby rival.
The co-op team consisting of players from Lincoln, Milan and Belleville did play this season, but injuries have forced that squad to withdraw from the playoffs, according to Lincoln athletic director Eve Claare.
Here is a look at the seven remaining Washtenaw County teams that will begin their playoff runs this week:
Huron River Rats
Coaches: Kevin Delamarter and Brian Pienta
First-round game: vs. Saline, 7:45 p.m. Monday, Ann Arbor Ice Cube. (Division 2 bracket)
About the River Rats:
A mid-season coaching overhaul led to Delamarter and Pienta taking over as co-head coaches for a Huron team that was winless when they assumed control. A young team, the River Rats have only four seniors on their roster.
Since taking over, the two coaches have stressed a more disciplined game and taking care of the puck in their defensive zone. Offensively, Huron likes to crash the net and play down low in the opposition’s zone.
The team relies heavily of its two senior defensemen, Pat Gilchrest and Nick Sorscher. Both are four year players for the Rats and have been a calming presence for the team all year.
Huron has been preparing for Saline for a couple weeks and Delamarter thinks they’re ready to give the Hornets an unexpected test.
“In the last few weeks we’ve made a really good turn in playing full games,” said Delamarter. “We know that what we’re setting out for our goals, we’re getting accomplished.”
Coach: Paul Fassbender
First-round game: vs. Skyline, 5:20 p.m. Monday, Ann Arbor Ice Cube. (Division 2 bracket)
About the Pioneers:
Although a majority of Pioneer's players don't have as much varsity experience as some of their contemporaries, they’ve been able to put together a quality season. Only two of their top six scorers are seniors, according to Fassbender.
“I think we had a strong run toward the end. To a point, we over-achieved. We won 14 games with seven or eight freshmen,” Fassbender said.
Special teams will be the key for Pioneer. The team has scored on 35-percent on its power play chances and has scored with the man advantage in almost every game.
Team captain Eric Domino has been the team’s defensive standout in front of fellow senior, goalie Spencer Peck. The team will be without one of its top forwards in junior Tommy Pokorney, who is serving a one-game suspension for fighting.
Coach: Mike Hagen
First-round game: vs. Pioneer, 5:20 p.m. Monday, Ann Arbor Ice Cube. (Division 2 bracket)
About the Eagles:
As one might expect for a team in its first season at the varsity level, Skyline has struggled to adjust to the level of play they face game in and game out. However, the Eagles won three out of four games at one point this season.
“The thing that’s been fun for me as a coach is to just watch and see them work as a team,” said Hagen.
As a puck possession team, Skyline depends on winning faceoffs and making good reads in its defensive zone to spark the offensive attack. Seniors Nate Wegryan and Kyle Hagen (Mike’s son) have paced the offense, leading the team in goals and assists, respectively.
After playing their best game of the season last week against Monroe (a 5-3 loss), Mike Hagen feels his team has what it takes to shock Pioneer when the teams meet in the opening round.
“If they play the way they did against Monroe, we’re going to give Pioneer a run for their money,” he said.
Coach: Drew Denzin
First round game: vs. Huron, 7:45 p.m. Monday, Ann Arbor Ice Cube. (Division 2 bracket)
About the Hornets:
Saline is led by a group of nine seniors that are spread throughout the lineup and provide a balance. Colin Cederna is the team’s captain and the heart and soul of the team, according to Denzin.
Goalie Neil Flavin is another of those seniors, and Denzin expects big things from his net-minder if they want to advance in the playoffs.
“Neil is going to have to play as well or better than he has the last few games,” Denzin said.
Saline plays a finesse style game and likes to use its quickness to its advantage. Having already seen Huron twice this season, the Hornets know what to expect. They beat the River Rats in both contests, but Denzin knows how tough it will be to beat Huron for the third time this year.
“Our best players are going to have to be the best players every night,” he said.
Coach: Don Wright
First-round game: Bye (Division 3 bracket)
Second-round game: vs. Dexter-Jackson Lumen Christi winner, 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Arctic Coliseum in Chelsea.
About the Bulldogs:
Maybe the deepest team in Washtenaw County, the Bulldogs can roll out four lines with the top three playing consistently throughout. Chelsea uses that depth to wear down teams and showcase their skilled offensive play.
With plenty of senior leadership throughout the lineup, Chelsea has the experience necessary to make a run deep into the playoffs. Joe Hewitt, Brad Hepler and Kyle Whipple are all seniors who lead an attack that likes to give opponents a variety of looks offensively. Defensively, the Bulldogs do a good job of limiting chances from their opponents and play well in front of their own net, making life a lot easier for goalie Chris Boyd.
It won’t be easy, but Wright feels his team can compete with anybody in the state.
“It’s a matter of if you’re composed. The playoffs bring out the best in everybody,” Wright said.
Coach: Brian Sipotz
First-round game: vs. Jackson Lumen Christi, 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Arctic Coliseum in Chelsea. (Division 3 bracket)
About the Dreadnaughts:
The strength of the Dreadnaughts is their defensive prowess. Three of their top six defensemen are seniors who, along with goaltender Cameron Rooks , have played well all year for Dexter.
“Even with our younger guys, I’m not concerned who is out on D,” Sipotz said. “Guys have been good about knowing their limitations.”
On offense, the top line of Jake Waldrup, Ian Wiesenberg and Tristin Rojeck is a dangerous trio that has been tough all season on opposing defenses.
The Dreadnaughts are motivated by revenge. They've been knocked out of the playoffs by Lumen Christi in each of the last five seasons.
“We’re going to have to be disciplined about putting the pucks deep and grinding it out,” Sipotz said. “We played them pretty tight early in the year. They have a pretty similar makeup to us. It should be a good game.”
Father Gabriel Richard Fighting Irish
Coach: Tom O’Brien
First-round game: Bye (Division 3 bracket)
Second-round game: vs. Dearborn Divine Child-New Boston Huron winner, 8:45 p.m. Wednesday, Dearborn Ice Arena.
About the Fighting Irish:
A young team, Gabriel Richard plays a tough game in the neutral zone and likes to use its size to its advantage. The Irish will roll three lines in an effort to keep fresh legs on the ice and wear out the opposition. With only five seniors on the roster, experience could be factor, but the team has played a tough schedule this season in preparation for a playoff run.
“We’ve had very successful season with a more difficult schedule and we want to challenge ourselves,” said O’Brien. “It’s put us in a good position to get our first win in the state tournament.”
The team has played well this year in front of sophomore goalie Ryan Baron, with junior Steve McCollugh leading the defense. On offense, the Irish like to play down low in the zone and crash the net with juniors Ryan Ferris, Gunnar Gail and Nick O’Brien (Tom’s son) leading the way.