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USPHL Premier 2023-24 Division Preview Series: Southeast

By Joshua Boyd / USPHLPremier.com 

 

Charlotte Rush

Season Opener: Sept. 15 at Columbia Infantry

The Rush stand as one of the most successful franchises in USPHL Premier history. Since 2018, the team has the second most points of any Premier team, with 369, second only to the Metro Jets’ 397. Being second to anyone never sits well with the Rush, who won the 2021 National Championship and made the final game in 2018 and 2023 as well. The Rush have brought longtime GM Trevor Jewell back behind the bench after two seasons and Jewell is firmly committed to having the Rush lift the hardware and advance the most players to the next level. 

“I am really happy with the roster we have put together. With the players we have assembled, I think it will be a group that plays a heavy, skilled game,” said Jewell. “We have some guys that have proven themselves in this league and play the right way. We will definitely be tough to play against. Coupled with our skilled playmakers it should be a very fun team to watch.”

The 2023 team that made the championship game was on the older side even for the Rush, who went slightly younger this year. 

“We are definitely younger than we have been in the past,” Jewell added. “We had a very, very good team last year. With this group, I think you see more of an edge to them. It will be hard to be as deep as last year, but I think we are very close. Lots of guys are hungry to put their mark on the Rush program.”

The Rush sent 15 players on to the college hockey level, while others have matriculated to Tier II teams, and others are still in their Tier II camps. 

“We moved all of our guys on to college or a higher level. Even our [potential] returnees like Conor Humphrey, Carson Galin, Peter Keese and Devin Stephens are all still in training camps,” said Jewell. “We essentially had a full rebuild and wish those guys nothing but the best at the higher level. Our job is to advance players and we feel, as a staff, we did just that.”

Right away, Jewell expects some of his team’s newcomers to be “immediate factors.” 

Those to keep a close eye on are Jack Cullen (in his second stint with the Rush), as well as additional USPHL veterans like Jake Williams, Jared Weisert, Jack Day and Carson Beattie (all formerly with the Ogden Mustangs), Ryan Cunningham and Zach Nicholls, as well as newcomers to the league like ‘05 forward Nick Metelkin. 

“All are players that have proven themselves at this level and will be counted on in each game to bring their best,” said Jewell. “We’re also excited about a few of our Elite guys that will be making the jump to Premier this season. They have developed within the system and we expect them to do great things at the premier level.”

Jewell has been a coach in the USPHL since 2016-17, so he’s very familiar with the Southeast Division, having been on the bench for nearly every Premier and Elite game for the Rush since then. 

“I think the division just keeps getting better year after year. It’s really anyone’s division the minute we hit the ice. The margin for error each weekend all season is so small. If you look at previous years’ standings from 1st to 4th it’s really a dogfight with not many points separating the teams. So each weekend is extremely important,” he said. “I think you’ll see Potomac take another step forward, they’ve done a great job since Grats [Josh Gratton] took over. I think Hampton could be a team to watch. Columbia I believe may surprise a lot of people this season as well. It’s going to be another tight year and each week it gets more exciting and even more difficult. We are excited to get going and see what this division is about in 2023-24.”

 

Potomac Patriots

Season Opener: Sept. 16 at Hampton Roads Whalers 

The Patriots’ Premier and Elite teams had the odd and very unusual distinction last year of finishing with the same exact record in two very different conferences. Both teams finished second in their respective Southeast divisions with 32-10-1-1 matching records. The Pats are on the rise, as Assistant Coach Alex Grose states here. 

“We are excited about our roster this season here at Potomac,” said Grose, who is helping out Head Coach Josh Gratton on the Premier bench while also standing as head coach of the Elite side. “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 team will be able to score goals.

“The biggest early observational difference between our team this year and last is our team’s depth,” Grose added. “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 defense core this year to help us make the push to the National Championships.”

How about returning 112 points from last year in just four players – twins Siamion and Matvei Marschanok, Mauritz Persson and Gustav Sandberg? That’s a great start. Yovanni Flores also comes back from last year’s Premier team and a couple top Elite Patriots – Liam Hanna and Cooper James – are making the move upwards to Premier.  

The Premier team also put together a strong off-season of recruiting new talent, such as goaltender Samuel Couture, an ‘05 from St. Francis Prep (of Athol, N.Y.) and another encouraging crop of Swedish players in the form of ‘03’s William Olund and Axel Jaldeby and ‘04’s Neo Wahlbom and Oscar Mortiz. 

Whether it’s the Premier or Elite Southeast, Grose sees it as the same story in terms of competition. 

“We think the Southeast division will be as competitive as ever,” he said. “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.”

 

Richmond Generals

Season Opener: Sept. 16 at Carolina Jr. Hurricanes

The Generals were always in the mix of the Southeast Division last year and finished third with a very strong 29 wins. The Generals have a bit of a new look this year, with Gary Gill taking on the GM and Head Coach duties, part of a 15-year career that has seen him coach at the pro and junior levels. 

“We are very excited about our roster,” said Gill. “Though we are a bit younger this season, we aren’t short on talent and hard work. We are 100 percent focused on team play as opposed to relying totally on talent alone.” 

The USPHL Premier Generals are excited to bring back some top talent, including multi-year Gens like Andrew Farley, Aidan Urie, Damian Bridgett and Trae Schanberger, all members of the 2022 USPHL Elite National Champion Generals team. Will McLaughlin also looks to be moving up to the Premier level. 

Among the top newcomers are a pair of ‘04’s from Quebec, Tristan Reid and Cedric Cardinal, while ‘03 Jacob Begich comes in with NA3HL experience and Adam Palenik (‘06) is joining with prior USPHL Premier experience. 

All of these players are ready to battle for some of the best bragging rights in the Premier. 

“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.”

 

Carolina Jr. Hurricanes

Season Opener: Sept. 8 at Columbia Infantry 

While the Jr. Canes’ Elite brethren were the toast of the town in their league, the Premier team had to scratch and claw to make the playoffs, besting newcomers the Nashville Spartans for the fourth and final spot by just a single point. Head Coach Kevin St. Jacques returns to the Jr. Canes seeing a faster speed on the ice and, so far, better cohesiveness off the ice. 

“At Premier we are looking good. We have a good mix of veterans and rookies. A big difference between this year’s team and last year’s team is the overall team speed is better,” said St. Jacques. “We are definitely more of a team with better leadership. This year’s team is more together and has less egos in the room.”

Coming back from last year’s Jr. Canes Premier team are third-year Jr. Cane and their top returning scorer Kornel Kaibas (26 points in 36 games last year), along with lifetime Jr. Cane Nolan Bolt, along with others with more than one year of USPHL experience like Matthew Loza and Ethan Rubin. Caden Surchik and Keaton Toenjes are returning to the team after playing last year both out of the Arizona Bobcats program. 

From the championship Elite team, the team is bringing in 2022-23 USPHL Elite All-Stars Brayden Strong, Jacob Gifford and Colby Markham, along with Matteo Viglino and goaltender Pavel Matiunin. 

Additional newcomers to the Premier team include ‘04 forwards Luc Corbin, with a season of NA3HL under his belt, and Jackson Weglarz out of the New Hampton School. “Luc and Jackson will add skill and speed,” said St. Jacques. 

“Also, up front Michael Schwartz and Jack Mackenzie will provide offense and speed,” the coach added, of two more junior-experienced players coming into the Jr. Canes program. 

Bringing in top-flight players is crucial in the Southeast, because any team that lags behind in the recruiting battles is going to fall behind in the standings quickly. 

“As for our division, it’s a battle every year, so recruiting is always important,” said St. Jacques. “We hope to be competitive but in our division it’s more important to be consistent.”

 

Hampton Roads Whalers 

Season Opener: Sept. 16 vs. Potomac Patriots

The Whalers have done an almost complete makeover after a tough 2022-23 season, and sent the Whalers on a worldwide search for players that will hit the ice with the organization’s longtime winning culture on their sleeve. 

“We are very excited and anxious to see our new look Hampton Roads Whalers Premier team in action with a ton of quality college prospects, proven game changers and great young men. We are really team focused on one collective goal,” said Head Coach Colten Teubert. 

General manager Brad Jones, who built the Whalers’ USPHL Premier back-to-back National Championship-winning teams in 2018 and 2019, joined with Teubert and the pair were absolutely men on a mission to put last season behind them. 

“Missing the playoffs last season left a bad taste in our mouth. From recruiting through training camp, it’s a focused effort to not only get back in the playoffs, but to get back to being a perennial contender,” said Jones. “We are a much deeper team than last season, both in team depth and top end talent. The effort so far in training camp along with the culture and team expectations set by the coaches and carried through by our leadership group is encouraging. Last season we were younger than we have ever been at the Premier level, we lacked not only age outs, but also guys with experience in the USPHL, and more importantly experience in the toughest division in the USPHL, the Southeast Division. 

“It’s exciting to return some key pieces with a year of experience under their belts, but we also added some other players with USPHL Premier experience and some high-end Elite and AAA prospects who will get a shot to make their mark at the Premier level,” added Jones. “C.J. Sweigart was hired to assist Colten Teubert behind the bench, so far it has been a seamless transition and great working relationship between our staff.”

The Whalers do indeed bring back several key components for veteran leadership, such as forwards Evan Miles, Wyatt Teubert, Matthew Fawwaz and Brendan Kelley. Teubert and Kelley were both top five scorers last year, and Miles comes back with a year of NCDC Tier II hockey under his blades. Fawwaz, an ‘04, is poised for a breakout year after moving last year from Elite to Premier. 

On defense, John Rangel, Merreck Lincoln and Ethan Ruggeri come back after all getting a full taste of Premier hockey last year, along with goalie Braxton Singleton. 

Among the newcomers to watch are forwards Christian Day, Alex Snellman and Ryan Mesenbrink. Day is already a two-year Premier veteran, while Snellman played most of the year in the Premier last year but also got a six-game look in the NCDC. Mesenbrink also brings with him a year of Premier experience already. 

On the defensive side, Luca Muscadere is a one-year Premier veteran and Samuel Russo joins from the USPHL Elite. 

Many are familiar obviously with the league as a whole, but have not experienced the Southeast Division’s long-standing rivalries and the high level of play that has resulted in three of the five championships thus far being won by division members (including the two by the Whalers). 

“The Southeast division is the toughest Division in USPHL. I expect multiple teams to have Tier 2 level players,” said Coach Teubert. “All six teams in the division are capable to getting to Nationals and making some noise.” 

 

Columbia Infantry 

Season Opener: Sept. 8 vs. Carolina Jr. Hurricanes

The Infantry have made the move from the Florida Division to the Southeast Division, but Head Coach Jacob Smulevitch needed no briefing on the tough Southeast Division. He is a former Charlotte Rush Elite head coach himself, and his former Charleston Colonials Elite team faced the Rush in the 2021 National Championship game in a Cinderella run. 

“We are very excited to be part of the Southeast Division. We fully intend to be a playoff contender in this division. It is a 44-game season and our group is completely bought into the process,” added Smulevitch. “Our goal is to be the hardest game on anyone’s schedule whether we win or lose and we are excited to try to make the playoffs for the first time ever in the hardest division in the league.” 

His confidence is grounded in a never-satisfied work ethic of finding the best players for the Infantry team culture, and Smulevitch is very pleased with the results. 

“I think this is a very strong team that we have put together. We have some injuries that we expect back after a few weeks of the season and I think once we are healthy, we will be a very hard team to beat,” Smulevitch said. “In the meantime, we will employ a next man up mentality and our players will be scrappers. We have very fast forwards and standout goaltending that will allow us to be a very hard team to play against on a regular basis.”

The Infantry come in with a younger team, lacking many age-outs. In fact, on the USPHLPremier.com site, there are only four total listed. 

“This is a much younger group full of players that I believe are excited for this opportunity. We have a terrific group of great people that are good hockey players as well,” Smulevitch said. 

Captain Blake Hasenauer is entering his third USPHL and second Premier junior season, both spent with the Infantry. He and Mason Hartz, who played between the Elite and Premier Infantry last year, form a solid team veteran basis. 

“Returners to look for this year are Premier captain Blake Hasenauer, who impacts the game every shift, and forward Mason Hartz who was almost a point per game after being called up to Premier last season,” Smulevitch said. 

A major newcomer win comes in the form of Elite All-Star forward Sean Boltin, who “dominated the Elite last year and will be a key piece of our offense this year.” 

Additionally, Levi Gauerke comes in with prior USPHL Premier experience. 

“Gauerke will lead a completely revamped D corps that has zero returning players after advancing two defensemen to the NCDC,” said Smulevitch.

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