It’s no secret that when it comes to high school hockey in the state of Michigan, Livingston County usually has some strong teams.
At least that was the case over the three seasons prior to last year, when Brighton and Hartland amassed a combined two championships and three second-place finishes in Division 1 and 2 state tournaments.
Last year, however, was perhaps an outlier.
Despite housing two division title-winners — Brighton won the KLAA Central, Hartland won the KLAA West and Howell came in a close second — it was somewhat of a down year for the area teams, at least by their lofty standards.
After Brighton made the Division 1 state finals in three straight seasons from 2012-14 — winning state titles in two of those three trips — and Hartland reached the D2 title game in back-to-back years in 2013 and ’14, no team from Livingston County advanced past the quarterfinals in 2015.
“I think we, especially this area, has been spoiled with just great teams,” Hartland coach Rick Gadwa said with a laugh. “And we had that again last year, even though Brighton lost in the regional — to a very good Salem team — and we lost in the (quarterfinals) in our division. But those teams were just as good as the past teams. Sometimes that’s just how the cards fall.”
It was Hartland that was the lone quarterfinalist.
For the fourth consecutive year, the Eagles advanced at least as far. In 2012, they were stopped by Grosse Pointe South before powering through to the state championship game the ensuing two seasons, falling to Livonia Stevenson and Trenton in 2013 and ’14, respectively.
The two-time state runners-up certainly weren’t going down without a fight, though, battling Brother Rice — one of the state’s powerhouse programs along with Hartland — to a four-overtime, 4-3 loss in a contest that won’t soon be forgotten by local hockey fans.
“It’s definitely a memorable moment,” Gadwa said. “In two of the previous flu years we were in state championships and lost, and that one was the toughest one.”
Hartland, of course, hopes to put that loss in the rearview mirror quickly and get back to its winning ways. The Eagles have won the KLAA West Division the past three years, winning it outright two of those years and splitting it two seasons ago with Howell.
The Bulldogs also hope they can have a short memory when they take the ice.
For the first time since 2012, they failed to make an appearance in the last game of the season. The Bulldogs actually failed to make the final eight in the D1 playoffs as their season came crashing down again Salem in the regional final with a 3-0 loss.
It was a stunning turn of events for the Bulldogs, who started slow due to injuries and difficult schedule. One could say they never fully got it going, as they went 13-9-5 overall, though they did go undefeated at 8-0-3 in Central play.
Brighton coach Paul Moggach credited the strange year to a lack of scoring.
“Last year, we played pretty well defensively,” Moggach said, “but didn’t score as many goals as we thought we needed, and also our goal production from the year before was down. So I think trying to get them a little better goal production (will be key).
“We didn’t get out of our regional, losing a game to Salem, which again, we didn’t score a goal against Salem and that’s the difference. If you can’t score goals, you can’t win.”
The Bulldogs’ 46 goals in league play were their fewest since scoring 35 in 2010-11, a year in which Brighton finished third in the Central. By comparison, Howell had 73 and was the highest-scoring team in the entire KLAA, the second-place squad being Hartland with 65.
While the Highlanders don’t have quite the same resume at the state tournament level as the Eagles and Bulldogs, they’re certainly still a perennial contender. The lack of recent success at the playoff level largely coincides with Brighton’s rise, and they play in Brighton’s regional bracket each year, so the opportunities to renew the magic from the 2009 and ’10 seasons, when the Highlanders were D1 runners-up, hasn’t been there.
Still, when not matched up with the Bulldogs, the Highlanders have been very successful.
They’ve secured at least a share of the West in three of the past four seasons, winning it outright two of those times. Until the 2011-12 season, one can even argue they were the class of Livingston County and the KLAA.
As evidenced by their success last year, Howell still has the pieces, though it will have to replace three All-Staters in Nick Pratt, Hunter Herzel and Brendan Adams. It’s just a matter of reconfiguring its offense and having things come together at the right time, meaning when it’s matched up against Brighton in either pre-regionals or regionals.
“We just have to learn to play playoff-caliber hockey,” Howell coach Mike Mantua said. “I’m learning and the kids are learning, as well. It’s about those small details, like blocking shots … and doing all the little things that successful teams do.”
The last of the area teams, Pinckney, has struggled in recent years. Since reaching the D2 quarterfinals in 2011, the Pirates have finished fourth or worse every year in the West.
But with every team being granted a blank slate, the Pirates are hoping this is the year to put all their recent woes in the past. They are afforded the luxury of returning 12 seniors and 18-of-22 players from last year’s roster.
Whether or not the Pirates the rest of the area teams can rebound will soon be seen.