WAUSAU – It’s been two decades since a team other than Stevens Point Area Senior High, Wisconsin Rapids or Wausau West has won a Wisconsin Valley Conference boys hockey championship.
That trend is expected to continue this season as West, an experienced team coming off an appearance in the WIAA state championship game, enters as the favorite. Rapids, the defending conference champion, and SPASH are expected to contend for the title as well.
Antigo, which now is in the Great Northern Conference, was the last program outside of those three teams to win a WVC title, capturing the 1995-96 championship.
The conference schedule begins Dec. 3.
Last year: 1. Wisconsin Rapids 10-1-1 (18-3-2 overall). 2. Wausau West 10-2-0 (17-4-3). 3. SPASH 8-3-1 (16-5-2). 4. D.C. Everest 7-5-0 (16-7-1). 5. Wausau East 2-9-1 (10-11-2) 6. Merrill 2-10-0 (5-14-0). 7. Marshfield 1-10-1 (7-15-1)
Deepest postseason run last year: Wausau West reached the WIAA state championship game in the program’s sixth straight tournament appearance.
Favorite: Wausau West
Contenders: Wisconsin Rapids, SPASH
Preseason marks: West was ranked second in the preseason state poll, while SPASH was ninth.
Five players to watch
1. Brock Caufield, jr., SPASH: The Panthers forward finished with 22 goals and 54 points in 22 games. The Ohio State commit was selected by the Green Bay Gamblers in Phase I of the USHL Draft last May and also is a reigning unanimous all-Wisconsin Valley Conference pick.
2. Cale Bowman, sr., Wausau West: A honorable-mention all state forward last year, Bowman had 21 goals and 34 points in 25 games. He also had a goal and five points in three state tournament games as West reached the state title game.
3. Sam Storlie, sr., Wisconsin Rapids: The Raiders veteran defenseman was third on the team last year with 23 assists. Storlie also was proficient on special teams with four goals and 10 points on the power play.
4. Mathew Janke, sr., D.C. Everest: The forward finished second on the Evergreens in both assists and points last season. Janke had 21 assists in 26 games, and two assists came in a 4-1 win over Mosinee in a WIAA regional title game.
5. Gabe McGinnity, sr., Wausau East: The veteran forward shared the team lead last season with Landon Dehnel in both goals (22) and points (41). McGinnity also had five power play and two shorthanded goals to lead East in both categories.
Wisconsin Rapids graduated Luc Kreuser, Casey Esselman and Grant Scharmer, who combined for 156 points last year. The Raiders do return goalie Tyler Werne, who posted a 19-3-2 record and a 1.90 goals against average last season. Logan Conkey, who finished fourth on the team in scoring last year with 35 points, is also back.
Wausau West returns 14 letterwinners from last year, including four of its top eight point leaders from state runners-up. The Warriors also return a pair of experienced goalies in juniors Paul Weise and Jacob Warnke. Sophomores Max Techel, Josh Bohlin and Max Zingler could be newcomers to watch this year as well.
Stevens Point Area Senior High returns its top three scorers from last year in Kobe Keller, Caufield and Grant Czaikowski. The three combined for 154 points. The Panthers graduated goalie Nathan Siclovan, who posted a 1.82 goals against average last season. Brandon Busse enters his first season as the Panthers coach.
D.C. Everest graduated 13 players from last year’s team that reached the WIAA sectional semifinals. The Evergreens do return four of their top six defensemen, however. The group includes sophomore JJ Berdal, who is coming off a nine-goal and 17-point campaign.
Landon Dehnel was tied for the team lead in scoring and also topped Wausau East with 77 blocked shots last year. Dehnel and Gabe McGinnity are two key players for a Lumberjacks team that will have seven freshmen on the varsity roster this season. East senior Andrew Bailey will make the transition from forward to defense this year.
Bill Hauswirth takes over as coach of a Merrill team that returns 11 players from last year. Junior forward/defenseman Austin Burgener was the team’s second-leading scorer with 13 goals and 24 points in 23 games.
Marshfield graduated 12 players from last year’s squad. Haydon Roy-Peterson is one of the key returners for the Tigers, however. The Marshfield goalie led the conference in saves last year as a sophomore and also was a WVC honorable mention selection.