The USPHL Elite Florida Division should see even more parity this season with the changes made in the off-season.
After Christmas last season, the race for the division title was down to two teams, ultimately won by a Tampa Bay Juniors squad on its way to a run that would carry it all the way to the National Championship game.
The Florida Eels kept things interesting and ultimately finished a close second. The Florida Junior Blades will be looking to turn in a more competitive Elite league season this year, while the two newest Florida Division teams in Atlanta and Charleston will have ambitious squads as well.
Following is a look at the five Florida Division Elite teams in order of finish from last season
TAMPA BAY JUNIORS
2018-19 – 32-10-1-1.
Playoffs: National Championship Runner-Up.
Last season, the Juniors perfected the art of coming up big at the right time all the way to the National Championship game.
The Juniors were a model of successful consistency, especially inside of its own division. Tampa Bay, coached by Garrett Strot, is out to improve the team’s non-division record at league showcases this year.
The Juniors posted an overall postseason record of 9-3, including wins in all four of its February contests.
The lone disadvantage to success may have occurred in the early games at Nationals as the Juniors earned a bye through preliminary rounds and dropped its opener in pool play at Nationals. A second round draw put the pressure on, but the Juniors never dropped another until it faced off with Richmond for the national title.
Timothy Ruf (28 points) is one of the team’s top returning forwards as an ‘02, while Carson Schuldt is the lone returning defenseman. Returning goalie Alexander Higginbotham will push to become starter this year.
2018-19 – 28-12-4-0.
Playoffs: National Championship Pool Play.
The Eels pushed the Juniors to the end, then advanced past the Florida Jr. Blades to reach the National Championship tournament. The Eels ended just one win away from a spot in the tournament semifinals.
Key returners include forward Gavin Medina who has split time between Elite and Premier over the past couple seasons, and defender Pavel Timochko from the Ukraine. Another defender, Ian Friz, will add a little more depth on the blue line.
Among the newcomers are Thomas Zechariah on defense along with forwards Matthew Clift, Easton Moore and Kaleb Harrop.
Eels’ General Manager Frank Scarpaci said team is more about individual goals and team depth heading into every season.
“Sure, like every team, we want to win but that is hollow,” said Scarpaci. “What we focus on is player development. If we develop our players 4+ hours per day we will have the players 25-deep to have the tools to win.
FLORIDA JUNIOR BLADES
2018-19 – 10-33-0-0.
In a small division last season (four teams) it was tough for the Junior Blades who faced a somewhat steady diet of matches against either Tampa or the Eels. While more competitive in certain games, the Blades unfortunately never found a way past either team last season.
The Blades will hope their returners gather experience from those tough matches and get the payback with a more successful 2019 season.
The team will get an early idea of where it stands as they will begin play this coming weekend with a home-and-home set against the defending division champion Tampa Bay Juniors.
ATLANTA MAD HATTERS
2018-19 – 26-16-2-0 (Southeast Division)
Then known as the Atlanta Jr. Kings, the Elite squad reached the postseason with a fourth place showing in the highly competitive Southeast division, but failed to score a goal against a Richmond Generals team on its way to a National championship.
The Madhatters will be the long trip in the Florida Division this season and, while there will be no players back from the 2018-19 version of the team, Head Coach Zach Sabatini expects a competitive and confident group to challenge in their new division.
“There is a lot to be excited about with our team this season,” said Coach Sabatini. “The MadHatters is an entirely new organization with new ownership, new coaching staff and a brand new facility.
“We definitely have a few newcomers that are expected to make some noise around the league,” Sabatini added.
The Colonials will be in their inaugural season as well in 2019-20, bringing junior hockey to South Carolina.
While the bar is traditionally set on the low side for first-year clubs, the ownership group has seen success with its other USPHL Premier and Elite teams.
The Colonials expect a proud and skilled group of young players to make sure the rest of the Florida Division has to earn everything it gets this season.
The Colonials will get a true test out of the gate as it hosts the Southeast Division’s Carolina Jr. Hurricanes this weekend.