Eskymos skaters hungry for more success

ESCANABA – The Escanaba Eskymos are hungry, and as the season is set to open Friday night at Houghton, they can’t wait to eat.

After accomplishing the best season in program history in 2012-13, the ending left a sour taste, falling 2-1 to Saginaw Heritage in a regional title game the Eskymos felt they should have won. They go into this season more experienced and with increased determination.

“I think it contributes,” said first-year coach Matt Hughes of the loss to Heritage. “It left a bad taste in our mouths, when you get that close to making it further – the furthest the program has been, and it was a matter of the puck not bouncing this way or that, I think it definitely contributes to the kids wanting to get a taste of that again.

Escanaba graduated a small senior class of four skaters last season and returns the majority of its roster, including the heart of the defense, where Hughes says the focus has been this preseason.

“The defense has been huge, plus having a senior goaltender returning who has been with our program four years, and having three senior defensemen coming back, it’s good to have a good core group returning,” Hughes said. “Our strengths this year are our goaltending and defense. We’ve been working on moving the puck with speed and quickness and creating chemistry.”

The Eskymos return five defensemen from last year including seniors’ team captain Derek Chaillier, Jeff Lyle and Quintin McCarthy as well as sophomores’ Calvin Pinar and Matt Casey.

Senior goaltender and assistant captain Nick LeMire comes off a breakthrough season in which he set the Eskymos single-season record for victories. Four senior forwards include assistant captain Steve Wood, TJ Myrick, Dan Ritter and Dominic Aos.

Also on offense is the lone junior on the team, assistant captain Levi Wunder, who shattered the Eskymo record books last season as a sophomore, scoring a state-leading 53 goals, 38 assists and 91 points. However his two linemates’ Jake Eastin and Nick Vandermissen have since graduated and chemistry may be a factor early on.

“Eastin and Vandermissen were good players and they played together a lot,” Said Hughes. “We have some younger kids that will have to step up and play with Myrick, Wunder and Wood. They’ll have to help contribute if we’re going to be successful as a team.

The Eskymos return a large group of seven sophomores, all who contributed last season; goaltender Jack Valentine and forwards’ Charlie Zuidema, Hunter LaMarch, Nick Aird and Dylan Gauthier.

Gauthier returns after a severe injury last season, suffering a leg laceration in early February that left him out for the remainder of the season.

“Dylan worked hard right after the incident last year,” said Hughes. “He’ll be a contributor this year and he’s a hard worker. That whole sophomore class, they’re young but they’re good, and they’ll be better. They still have three years of hockey left playing for their high school.”

The team has two newcomers in sophomore forwards’ Blaine Borman and Jack Williams.

The team got an early look at how they’ll mesh earlier this month in a multi-team scrimmage at Michigan Tech University.

“We played 40 minute runtime periods against Negaunee, Hancock and Jeffers and ended up 3-0,” said Hughes. “The best thing from that is that we didn’t get scored on. We played good defensively. Obviously it was the first time getting those 20 guys together and playing as a team, so there were things the coaches picked out that we need to improve on and things we need to continue to do well.”

The conference outlook will be different this year and the strength of schedule increased now that Houghton and Hancock have joined the Great Lakes Conference. The Eskymos will find out how they stack up Friday night when they open the season at Houghton.

“I think it’s great that we have Houghton and Hancock in our conference,” said Hughes. “We’ve played Hancock the last couple of seasons and now those games are more important. We haven’t played Houghton in a while, but they always have a good team. It will be interesting, we play them right off the get-go. We’ll see where we stand.”

The Eskymos also look to continue their recent success against the Marquette Redmen, the school’s main rival. Marquette holds an 83-18-4 advantage in the series, but Escanaba swept all three meeting last season for the first time in school history.

“We’re going to play Marquette how we’ve been playing them the last couple of years,” said Hughes. “We’re going to play them hard and go at them. I’m not sure what they have for numbers, but they’ve always been a rival, and we’re looking forward to continuing that.”

Also appearing on the schedule is the prestigious Michigan Public School Showcase in Chelsea, Mich. Last season, the Eskymos went 3-0 in the tournament beating state-ranked teams in all three games. With the addition of two teams into the conference, Escanaba was forced to eliminate one of its two home tournaments, so the Gil Versailles and Dick Johnsen tournaments will be combined into one tournament this season.

“When you can go into a showcase tournament like that and play high quality teams and go 3-0 and play good offensively and defensively, that will be one of our goals this year – to play good defensive hockey and have younger guys step up and contribute. We’re looking forward to that tourney again this year.”