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USPHL Premier 2021-22 Preview Series: Great Lakes Division

By Joshua Boyd / USPHL.com, 09/14/21, 4:00PM EDT

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The target is fully on the backs of the Metro Jets, who have won each Great Lakes Division title since the creation of the division in 2018. Teams have crept closer to the Jets since they led by more than 20 points in the first season. 

The Jets obviously want to not only win another division title and - more importantly - move as players on to college hockey as possible, but they’d also like to return to Nationals and have a better showing than in 2021. A first-game loss set them behind right off the bat, and in the end, a return to the National Championship game after two years was out of reach. They will hit the ice with a chip on their shoulder when the games begin on Sept. 24. 

The Toledo Cherokee showed they are serious about their game, from advancement to college to making noise at the Nationals. They were playing on the final round robin day with still a chance to advance to semifinals, so getting that taste has empowered them to keep up the progress that showed them advance from last in the division to third in 2019-20 to second last year. 

 

Below, we profile all seven Premier Division teams. Check back on USPHL.com every day from now to Sept. 21 for new Premier (or Elite) divisional previews, coming to an end just prior to the first games played in the New England Division. 

 

Order is 2020-21 regular season finish.

 

Metro Jets

Season Opener: Friday, Sept. 24, at Columbus Mavericks 

As mentioned, it has gotten tougher and tougher for the Jets to remain the leader of the Great Lakes Division as their competition continues to improve and put together ever-better seasons.

Ninth-year Jets Head Coach Justin Quenneville says his group is definitely up to the challenge of a four-peat as Great Lakes leaders. 

“Overall, we are excited about our group. We are returning the majority of our forwards and overall core. We were a young team last year that bought in early and found success with a difficult schedule we created for them,” said Quenneville. “We were fortunate to win our division, but fell short at Nationals. That’s a taste nobody forgot and everyone is ready for Game 1.”  

The maturity and speed has improved for the Jets, and not only do they return several Jets from last year, but they’ve also brought up eight players from their Metro Jets Development Program (MJDP) team out of the Midwest East that also played at Nationals, and even enjoyed more success in Virginia. 

“Overall, the players look like they want March to start tomorrow. Our job is to get them to focus on our process and preparation. We will rely on our core group to lead the way early for our newcomers,” Quenneville added.

The list of returners is jaw-dropping “on paper” - All-Stars Matt Cole and Louis-Pierre Fortier for starters, along with Cody Mastay, Cristian Adragna, Ryan Messing, Anders Grongstad, Nick Ceccarini, Braydin Lewis, Will Augustine, Daniel Miscavish, Joey Mocnik, Kam Hellman, Austin Ieuter, Owen Limback, Tim Washburn, Patrick Hays “and more.”

“We have no excuses to not be tone setters out of the gates,” added Quenneville. 

Looking at newcomers, he’s excited about Alex Bedenko, Chad Noetzel, Jonathan Martin, Niko Murgic, Zane Rydel who “all look to be fitting in nicely and wanting to make an impact.” 

It’s necessary as the Jets always “get the top lineup out of our opponent.”

“The Pittsburghs, Toledos and Columbuses are always tough opponents. Lake Erie will always play to every whistle and now Cincinnati looks to be adding talent to their lineup,” added Quenneville. “We need to be ready every game.”

 

Toledo Cherokee

Season Opener: Saturday, Sept. 25, vs. Columbus Mavericks

The Cherokee’s biggest year in 2020-21 saw them playing a meaningful game on the final day of round robin play at Nationals, but falling in a must-win situation. The Cherokee veterans know exactly what is needed to make it past that point and into the semifinals and potentially National Championship game. 

“I really like the group we have put together for the upcoming season,” said Head Coach Kenny Miller. “We have a good mix of veterans and have added some other guys that have junior experience as well as some really good first-year junior players that will make an impact in our lineup this season. This year’s team is going to be an older team. Having so many returners, we feel like this will be a deeper roster than we had last season.”

Returning in net, All-Star Joey Cormier comes back to lead the team from the crease, after playing phenomenally at Nationals. “He was our team MVP down the stretch,” Miller added.

Bailey Byrd, another returning All-Star, led the Cherokee in scoring last year with a 24-36-60 line in just 36 regular season games. His absence from the playoffs and Nationals was an immediate crutch last year, so he hopes to stay healthy all year and lead them back there, so he can join in on the fun. 

David Crandall has proven to be a two-way defenseman, “like having a fourth forward,” according to Miller. Additionally, Brandon Clark is expected put together a strong season.

Leading the whole way is the fourth-year USPHL veteran Bryce Davis, “who will continue to lead our team.” He leads the Cherokee in all-time USPHL games played with 120 and a full season could place him in the top 10 all-time in league history. 

Newcomers Kieran Carlile and Vincent Servizzi are ‘01’s with junior experience, while ‘02’s Hunter Hatcher and Caleb Kneiding join an already powerful D-core. 

“When you play the likes of Metro and Pittsburgh six or seven times, it’s always tough to get a win,” said Miller of the Great Lakes Division. “I expect some of the teams that didn’t have great win-loss records last year to be much-improved.” 

 

Pittsburgh Vengeance

Season Opener: Friday, Oct. 1, at Columbus Mavericks

After the Jets, the Vengeance have the next best history in the Great Lakes Division, finishing second, second and third in the division’s three years in the USPHL Premier. 

However, the Vengeance come into this season in a slightly different scenario, hiring a new Head Coach Steve Kruk a little later than most teams had their established staffs for the year. A lot of new players also sets the team up as younger than in past seasons. 

“It’s going to be a process in building this team because we got a late start with the hiring of a new coach. Coach Steve Kruk is going to be a strong asset for the program going forward,” said General Manager Dave Dorsey. “We aren’t going to have the experience that we had last year because of a lot of younger guys in the lineup.”  

Despite being a younger team overall, they do have some good building blocks back from the 2020-21 campaign. 

Nick Tessier (‘02) returns to the forward lines after a 38-point season last year, while ‘01 Michael Rocco joined late in the season and was a point-per-game player and even better in the playoffs. In the back, third-year Vengeance Braden Hanna and second-year Shawn Donovan are ‘01’s who provide experience to the D-core. 

Max Banoun, an ‘02 from New Jersey, is expected to provide “a strong season in goal,” after an accomplished Midget and prep career in prestigious leagues. 

Dorsey predicts that Pittsburgh is included in a group of teams that will be hoping for swift progression of young rosters to compete in the standings with last year’s two leaders. 

“I think Metro and Toledo will be very strong. The rest of the group will depend on the development of younger players,” added Dorsey. 

 

Columbus Mavericks

Season Opener: Friday, Sept. 17, at Cincinnati Jr. Cyclones

From their inaugural season of 2019-20 to last year, the Mavericks literally tripled their win total, from seven to 21. They can’t triple it again in a 44-game season, but they certainly have a rising foundation to build upon and could end up being right up there with the aforementioned iron of the league in Year 3. 

“This year’s edition of the Mavericks will be a younger group that will play with energy and tenacity to make up for relative inexperience initially,” said Head Coach Nate Handrahan. “We have some veterans on the back end and in net that will lead our group. The most obvious [difference] is our youth, but second will be our size. We have a smaller club than we did last season, but we have good speed and skill.”

Ethan Bishara (‘02) is a second-year player who clicked at a point-per-game pace last year - but just didn’t have enough games to get as many points to help his team as he would have liked. 

“I’m excited to see him healthy for a full year after he had nagging issues through last year,” said Handrahan. 

Back on the defense, the team welcomes back ‘01 Eric Podgorny, whom the Mavs brought in via trade from Charlotte. He is joined as a veteran defenseman by ‘02 Nik Jozefiak, a Powell, Ohio product. 

“Eric will log big minutes for us in all situations,” Handrahan added. “Nik played lots of minutes last year, and we are excited to see his progression.” 

Former Cleveland Barons and Team Ohio player Carson Johnston (‘03) is one of the most exciting newcomers, along with fellow forwards and ‘04’s Colin Crowley and Tyler Isherwood.

In his divisional outlook, Handrahan sees a similar landscape as his Great Lakes coaching peers. 

“I think Metro will be strong again as always and Toledo will be a threat. All our teams in our division are very solid and our newest addition Cincinnati will be no exception,” added Handrahan. “No nights off in the Great Lakes Division.”

 

Lake Erie Bighorns 

Season Opener: Friday, Sept. 24, vs. Buffalo Stampede

The Bighorns are entering their third season and have fared well enough to finish fourth and fifth so far in their short existence. They certainly are hoping for a move upward in the standings as well as more opportunities for their players to advance to college hockey, with more on-ice success potentially resulting in more looks by the NCAA and ACHA ranks.

“We are very excited for our players this season. We have a very good mix of age and youth that will bring excitement to our lineup,” said General Manager Brian Ramm. “Our returning players will add the veteran presence necessary to be successful.

“We have increased size this season throughout the lineup,” he added. “This will help significantly in our divisional play as there are no easy or light opponents.”

Left wing Justice Sheltgen (‘01) is now a fourth-year USPHL veteran, and he’ll be looked at for production up front along with last year’s third-leading scorer Dom Conte (‘01), who put up 31 points after coming in already with ACHA experience at the University of Akron. Third-year junior Todd Smith (‘02) finished two points behind Conte last year and also makes his return. 

Third-year USPHL player Brandon Lukomski (‘02) brings valuable experience as well. Nick Ramm (‘02) is another third-year USPHL player and is the only veteran for the team on D. 

The Bighorns can’t wait to put Jack Ginocchi on the blue line, coming in with significant experience in the NOJHL, where he’ll join defensive newcomers Max Chagovets, Cam Costello, Stone Bumbarger and Sam Gonyaw. 

Fast rookies Jayden Balcarczyk, Ricky Lias and Tate Olson “will add a lot of speed and look to get their junior careers going quickly,” added GM Brian Ramm. 

“The Great Lakes Division is always the toughest night in and night out. There are no easy games or opponents, and it almost always produces two to four eams inside the top 20 teams in the entire USPHL footprint,” Ramm added. “I don’t think that is going to change this season.”

 

Wooster Oilers

Season Opener: Sat., Sept. 25, vs. Metro Jets

The Oilers are among those in the Great Lakes Division with long histories far preceding their time in the USPHL. However, the organization has been under new ownership since 2020 and are continuing to build from the ground up towards a realistic goal of becoming one of the Great Lakes’ top contenders. 

“I like our group. We will be a hard working group that will be tough to play against every single night,” said second-year Head Coach Jordan Roemer, a member of the very first Oilers squad back in 2010-11. “One early observational difference from last year is that we are a group this year that won’t quit. We have begun creating and continuing to instill our culture, and so far every player has bought into the Wooster Oiler way.” 

The Oilers kick off this season with a pair of veteran goalies continuing their 2020-21 battle for the crease, in Rob Holden, an ‘02 who is a former Lakewood High standout in Ohio, and former Strongsville goalie Luke Bell (‘01), who is now a third-year USPHL Premier veteran.

Rob’s twin brother Will Holden (a former Lakewood captain) is among the veteran leaders up front, along with ‘01 Michigander Nate Kniesteadt, who is the top returning scorer after posting 35 points in 39 games last year. 

In terms of new players, watch for “quick, creative” ‘03 forward Piercen Garcia, ‘02 Neil Adams - “a forward who takes pride in all areas of the game” - and ‘05 Jordan Huffman. 

“Jordan is a young player that has a limitless offensive upside and is looking to get his feet wet in junior hockey,” added Roemer.   

He’ll have a great trial by fire, as Roemer added that “every night you are playing a team with National Championship dreams.”

“Everyone knows about Metro and Toledo, but the other teams in our division have all had good summers and are top tier organizations,” said Roemer. “There will not be a single night off this season!”

 

Cincinnati Jr. Cyclones 

Season Opener: Fri., Sept. 17, at Columbus Mavericks  

The very first game in the Great Lakes Division for the 2021-22 season will be played by its newest member, the Cincinnati Jr. Cyclones, associated with the ECHL team known as the Cincinnati Cyclones. 

They certainly know the tough division they’re getting into, and have come in with the tools that GM/Head Coach Jim Mitchell believes can put them right into the mix and potentially nullifying any new team growing pains. 

“I’m pretty excited for this team. We have a great mix of USPHL veterans and new guys that are highly skilled. We feel we should be pretty competitive from the start,” said Mitchell. “I’m looking forward to seeing the veterans lead this team and watch the younger guys’ development this season. I think as the season goes, we will only get better and will be a team to watch out for in playoffs.”

He starts off with returning USPHL All-Star Drake Barnish, a 69-point scorer last year who already has 130 points in 130 career USPHL games. He is already in the top 20 all-time in games played and top 30 all-time in points. 

Kyle Burke comes in as a USPHL All-Star defenseman,, scoring 22 points in 42 games last season. 

Brendan Walk also has an impressive resume of 82 points in 68 USPHL games, including 35 points in 24 games last year. Joey Mattevi has posted 32 points in his 58-game USPHL career so far, while Quinton Line figures to be one of their strongest defensive blueliners. USPHL-experienced Blake Mitchell will line up for a goaltenders’ battle for crease time.

Watch out for Nathan Sunderhaus, who scored more than 400 points in four years for the Northern Kentucky Norsemen 18U program. Willie Seibel (‘04) is an exciting young player, and John Kostilidis (‘02) jumps onto the blue line with Burke and Line.