By Joshua Boyd / USPHLElite.com
Official puck drops begin this very Friday in the Southeast Division, which has been home to all five USPHL Elite National Champions since the formation of the current Elite conference in 2017. Most recently, it was the Carolina Jr. Hurricanes who took home the hardware after also winning the division title for the regular season for their first time. Additionally, the perennial powerhouse Charlotte Rush made their third straight Nationals appearance and were hoping to get back on top after winning in 2021. Potomac made some waves last year as well by making their first playoff appearance.
The division also saw some changes after the former member Nashville Spartans moved their Premier team to the Great Lakes Division and closed their Elite program, opening the door for the former Florida Division member Columbia Infantry to join the Southeast Division. Below we breakdown a little bit of what to expect from the new-look division.
Order is based on 2022-23 regular season finish.
Carolina Jr. Hurricanes
Season Opener: Friday, Sept. 8, at Columbia Infantry
Welcome to target country, and we’re not talking about department stores here. The Jr. Hurricanes will, for the first time in their history, start the season as reigning champions which comes not only with a trophy, hardware and banner, but with the aforementioned virtual target on the back. Every team always wants to knock off the reigning champs, but Head Coach Brad Gaylord sees his team as being up for that challenge – and for the challenge of winning yet again at Nationals!
“Elite’s roster looks strong again, and we look to defend our National Championship,” he said. “We do have many returners which helps, and our newcomers look very promising. As for early strengths, I like how we’re puck-hungry and we play with a little more physicality. Our defensive core is strong with returners.”
And boy do they have a lot of returners – Carter Radosta, Nathan Rhodes, Banks Morgan, Greg Harter, Alex Rich, Zach Rich, Max Sullivan, Liam McCusker, Christopher Cuddy and Josh Harwood. All have rings and all are determined to push for more.
“Our top returners are all of them,” added Gaylord.
Other former champion players have moved up to higher junior levels or to college, which leaves room for some new Jr. Canes to make their mark this year.
Anthony Trantas and Ryan Kalina, a pair of ‘05 goaltenders, both helped the Jr. Canes 18U AA team to the Tier II National Championships this past spring. Additionally, Andrew Timmeny (‘06) comes to the team from the Jr. Canes’ 16U AAA squad.
Also keep an eye on newcomers such as Luke Waterson (‘04), Omar Wang (‘04), Nicholas Miskovsky (‘05) and Landon Rush (‘06).
“I feel [the Southeast] will be the most competitive division in the entire league once again. I must believe Hampton will be much better this year, so they are my pick to rise higher in the division this year,” Gaylord said.
Season Opener: Sept. 15 at Hampton Roads Whalers
When the Patriots look at their team, they think about all 40-plus players in the organizational depth chart. Their outstanding success, including their highest finish in their history, with a 32-10-1-1 record at the Elite level exactly matching their Premier mark.
“We have a few returning players from last year rounded out with a bunch of strong new players. Our team strengths this season will definitely be our offensive firepower. Like last year, our teams will be able to score goals,” said Alex Grose, Assistant Premier and Head Elite Coach.
He also said that this could be the Patriots’ best teams yet with both designed to shake up the past order yet again and potentially even reach their first National Championships at one level or both.
“The biggest early observational difference between our team this year and last is our team’s depth,” said Grose. “We built our team this year to have players that can score and ones who can play hard and play certain roles. We think we will also have a more well-rounded defensive core this year to help us make the push to the National Championships.”
With nine days remaining from the date of publication, there are still lineup decisions to be made, but there are a couple of players that Grose identified as exciting newcomers in the form of Travis Plylar, an ‘06 from Manassas, Va., who has played in the Patriots organization for years, along with Kiril Golubev, an ‘07 defenseman from the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (Russia) 16U team.
No matter the level – Premier or Elite – the Patriots know that every game they play this year will be a tough outing. Southeast rivalries run deep and they know not a single team on the circuit give much quarter to their opponents, or even leave the door open a centimeter.
“We think the Southeast Division will be as competitive as ever. With our first game against Hampton we expect them to be much better this season and are going to be prepared to play against them,” Grose added.
Season Opener: Sept. 15 at Columbia Infantry
The Rush, like so many teams not starting this weekend, are still working through training camp with many decisions ahead of them as to where players will fall on their roster. While that makes naming names impossible at this point, Head Coach Trevor Kleckner is still confident that no matter which 21 players take the ice on the first night, they’ll be ready and they’ll be the right players to hold up the name of one of the Elite’s best overall franchises. Since 2018, they are second all-time in points (360), trailing ages-old rival the Richmond Generals by a single point (361) in regular season play.
“I think we have a strong roster consisting of many returners from the 2022-2023 season. The obvious strength would be our experience from last season,” he added. “The biggest difference would be our experience, as we had a very young roster. Last year we had very few players with junior hockey experience, whereas this year we have the experience. Our hope is to learn from last year’s mistakes and build off of the success we had with our trip to Nationals.”
Like all the Southeast coaches, he loves going to battle every night with the Richmonds, Carolinas and Hampton Roads of the world. Those teams and the Rush have won all of the Elite championships since the formation of the current conference in 2017. While they all want to beat each other, they also want to make sure the championship remains in Southeast hands.
“I think this year will be a very competitive year for the Elite Southeast Division. All teams boast a strong returning group which will make for great competition every weekend. Obviously, you have the defending national champs in the Jr. Hurricanes, but also very fierce groups in Richmond and Potomac. Hampton also returns a bunch of their key players and Columbia looks to make a statement their first year in the Southeast Division,” Kleckner added.
Season Opener: Sept. 16 at Carolina Jr. Hurricanes
It was a near-full changing of the guard for the Generals, as Gary Gill takes over the GM duties for the program and also is Head Coach of the Premier team, while longtime Gens goaltending coach Tom Hasenzhal is now Head Coach for the Elite team.
“I think at this point we are looking to have a strong defensive core with some good goaltending,” said Gill, of the Elite squad. “We are 100% focused on team play as opposed to relying totally on talent alone.”
The Generals will look for leadership from returning veterans ‘03 Trae Schanberger, who was also on the 2022 Generals Elite National Championship team, and ‘04 forward Will McLaughlin. Among the most intriguing newcomers are Cooper Senn, who brings previous Elite and Premier experience, Skyler Luo from Australia and who also comes with Tier III junior experience, and Duncan Miller. The ‘05 Miller was undefeated in regulation at the Tier III level last year and was an EHL Premier teammate of Luo.
Gill may be new to the USPHL, but he is very familiar with the Southeast Division’s “anyone can beat anyone” atmosphere, so he knows his team needs to be ready every night.
“Much like in the Premier conference, as I see it, this division is one of the very best in the league as every single night is a war,” he said. “All the teams in this division are very very well coached and they are all full of talent.”
Hampton Roads Whalers
Season Opener: Sept. 16 vs. Potomac Patriots
The Whalers struggled during their 2022-23 season, but General Manager Brad Jones and new Elite Head Coach C.J. Sweigart are confident those days are well behind them. As seen above, other coaches expect the Whalers to be a much tougher draw as well this year.
“Our staff is excited about every player we have brought in. We are a young team with a lot raw talent but also a lot of work and developing to do,” said Sweigart.
“What I do know is that we have a hungry group this year that has fully bought in to the type of game we want to play: structured in the way we defend and hard to play against in all 3 zones,” Sweigart added.
Jones was very impressed with Sweigart, a former player for organizations that eventually joined the USPHL and who also has multiple junior coaching years under his belt.
“The major difference from last year to this year starts behind the bench, with the hiring of C.J. Sweigart and Lukas Voglrieder to lead our Elite team. They hit the recruiting trail hard, and from day one of training camp, have set high expectations and the culture bar high,” said Jones. “We have seven key returners from last year’s team who are hungry to put last season behind them, and have surrounded them with some high end recruits we expect to play major roles for our team this year. The potential for this team to be scary good is in place, now the hard work and dedication from the players must make that potential a reality.
“Last season, a lack of depth, discipline and buy-in cost us many games, as well as a spot in the playoffs,” added Jones. “Simply put, it is not up to the standards we expect from our organization.”
All-Star forward and lifetime Whaler Brayden Taylor, from nearby Virginia Beach, is back in the driver’s seat for the team along with fellow returning Whalers Taryk Filipuzzi, Josef Bauer and Ryan Delong. All were top 10 scorers on the team last year, while the team also brings back blueliners Hudson Hinch and Charlie Heimbecker and goaltender Jean Berthaudin.
“Lots of young guys have made early impressions on us during training camp. Our team is almost an entirely new roster from last season, with 20 new faces on the roster,” added Sweigart of the newcomer group. “With any young group, it will be a process, but I can say, this is a group, as a whole, that I am very excited to work with this season and beyond.”
He specifically pointed to forward Blake Marvici, Gregor McNish, Dylan Sedlak, Bryson Ehn and Tristen Brooks and defenseman Jacob McCormack as “players who stand out for different reasons, but can make impact plays and have strong futures if they keep doing things the right way every day.”
It’s been said just how tough the division is, and the Whalers are ready to make it their proving ground.
“This is a very strong division and our players and staff are excited to get to compete every day in the Southeast – lots of strong players for our guys to test themselves against week in and week out,” Sweigart said. “That’s what it’s all about.
Season Opener: Friday, Sept. 8 vs. Carolina Jr. Hurricanes
Jacob Smulevitch is excited to be bringing his two Infantry teams into the Southeast Division, and certainly expects to give the opposition headaches every time out.
“I think we will make our mark this year in the Southeast. I do believe that it will take time for our players to mature but I believe trial by fire against teams such as the defending champion Jr. Canes will speed up the process and we are excited to see where it goes,” said Smulevitch.
Team construction was a positive time for the Infantry, Smulevitch said, especially as he was faced with filling almost an entire roster.
“I’m very excited about the roster we have put together. It is a very rookie-heavy team with a few returners so I think it is a team that will grow and develop as the season goes on,” he added. “I think one strength we will have is our D corps and our goaltending. We have a very big strong core of D as well as some very young and athletic goaltenders.”
The young theme continues as Smulevitch said that the vast majority of players are coming into this year’s Elite Infantry squadron with little to no junior experience. However, that is not the case for the entire team.
“A couple returners to look out for are forward and newly named captain Eli Reaves, who grew a ton last year as a player and will take a huge step forward this year offensively,” said Smulevitch. “[We also return] forward Matthew Ferrier, who led our Elite team in goals last year, and defenseman Dominik Dahms, who will be a physical presence on our back end.”
Cole Gardner, an ‘05, from the Charleston Stingrays Midget program, and Ryder Barbara (‘06) from the Idaho Jr. Steelheads AA program are two new Infantry players to watch.
“Cole possesses terrific hands and offensive instincts. Ryder plays a mature game for a very young D and will be leaned upon heavily,” added Smulevitch.