There's no beating around the bush, Pirate Boys' Hockey faces great expectations this season. Charles Dickens-like great expectations.
Expectations are always high when you return five of your top six scorers from the season before. And that's just what the Pirates are bringing back. Also, 11 of the 14 players that played in 20 or more games return.
The team will be challenged this season too, facing nine opponents that at least received votes in the preseason Associated Press polls. Crookston also received votes and are looking up at section rivals Warroad (ranked No. 12), East Grand Forks (No. 9) and Thief River Falls (No. 7).
Pirate head coach Jon Bittner, who will coach in his sixth season and his 39th in high school hockey overall, says his 14 seniors have a load of responsibility.
"They have to bring leadership," he explained. "They've been around this a long time and this is their season. It's important to have a veteran experience in drills, the locker room, hotels and at games."
Coach Bittner said the top two lines are pretty much set with spots on the third and fourth lines open. However, if necessary, Bittner is not afraid to play just two lines.
"There's a battle for the third line," he said. "We'll go with players who are at the varsity level or with two lines."
The Pirates return a number of forwards from last season who are now seniors, including: Ryan Edevold, who registered a team-high 39 points (14 goals, 25 assists) in 25 games last season, Dylan Klatt, who had 24 points (13g, 11a) in 26 games, and Brady Heppner, who had 22 points (7g, 15a) in 26 games.
"We are looking forward to big years from those guys," Bittner said. "Eddy (Edevold) and Heppner are two of the better forwards in Section 8A."
Senior Connor Morgan will also be a key factor in the Pirates' success this season, as he tallied ten goals in 26 games last season.
Other notable forwards returning include: Curtis Regan, Alex Clauson, Ethan Mercil and Kyle Proulx.
At the blue line, senior Ryan Bittner and junior Justin Cameron are two of the best in the section. Bittner recorded 22 points (4g, 22a) in 25 games last year. Cameron had just three assists in 22 games but provides reliable play at both ends of the ice.
Senior Cam Leas and junior Kal Salentiny each played in all 26 games last season and will be key factors at the blue line again. Senior Blake Brekken and sophomores Patrick Berg and Mikey Hajostek will also see time as defensemen.
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"Last year we were very young and inexperienced," Bittner explained. "Ryan and Justin Cameron are arguably two of best D in the section, if not the state. They have both played at advanced levels. We will be decent on the back side."
In between the pipes is where the question mark lies. Junior Parker Epema, senior Landon Stainbrook and freshman Adam Huglen are the three candidates.
"We are young and inexperienced with a senior, a junior and a freshman," said Bittner. "Kollin Erdman was a rock for two and a half seasons for us. He played in virtually every game for us. Before him was Nick Biermaier and Matt Grove, so these guys today have quite a legacy to live up to. We'll go as far what they improve throughout the course of the season. One or two of them have to step up and take control of that position. It's an open competition for that and every spot. Nobody has stepped forward and claimed the position yet. Everyone has looked good and struggled at times."
Epema played in two games last season as a sophomore.
Whoever steps up and wins the goaltending position will have their pads full against a tough section this season. Thief River Falls, East Grand Forks, Warroad and Crookston look to be the four favorites.
"On paper they are all very good," Bittner said. "East Grand Forks has very good hockey players coming through their program now and Thief River Falls is always solid with the Berglands. They always have sound and crafty players."
Bittner is joined on the bench this season by goalie coach Matt Steinmetz and three former Pirates from the Class of 2002 in Jeremy "Yogi" Yeager, Jake Abrams and Joel Gasper, who each played on the Pirate teams that had back-to-back runner-up finishes in the Section 8A Playoffs in 1999-00 and 2000-01.
"We have a solid coaching staff with people that have played at the next level," said Bittner. "Matt Steinmetz played in college. Jake and Yogi played juniors and both could've gone to the next level. Joel played at the Division I level and is now making the transition from player to coach. He brings a lot to the table in terms of teaching kids systems and evaluating talent.
"We are happy to get into it and away we go," Bittner exclaimed. "Everything depends upon how we improve upon the course of the season. When you're dealing with hormonally challenged 15 to 18 year olds there are lots of variables."