Heritage Follows 1st Final with Fast Start

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

January 15, 2019

Members of the Saginaw Heritage hockey team said they didn’t need extra motivation this offseason.

With all but three players returning from a team that had made the program’s first MHSAA championship game, the Hawks knew if they put in the time, another special season could be in front of them.

But the schedule makers gave them something to look forward to anyway – a season-opening rematch with Brighton, the team that had defeated them in the Division 1 title game eight months prior. 

“There was for sure a little revenge in the back of our minds coming into that game,” Heritage junior forward Brady Rappuhn said. “I think the Finals last year was a stepping stone for us. Even though we didn’t win, just the experience was good for us.”

Heritage won the rematch 7-1 on Nov. 17 and hasn’t looked back, starting the season 11-0 and winning every game by four goals or more. It’s a stunning beginning that includes wins against six ranked teams, including two (Brighton and Salem) top-five teams in Division 1. That dominance has elevated Heritage to No. 2 in Michigan Hockey Hub’s Division 1 rankings, and No. 3 in its Super 10 pooling the best from all three divisions.

And nobody on the team seems surprised by it.

“We only lost three players from last year’s team, and we had a couple guys come in that were real good hockey players,” Heritage coach JJ Bamberger said. “Just the returning core of players we had, we were expecting to have a pretty good run. We talked about at the beginning of the year – last year, we fell short by one game, but we didn’t want to talk about getting back to that point. We just want to work on getting better every time we’re on the ice.”

Several factors have led to Heritage’s amazing start, but the one that could benefit the Hawks most later in the season is their incredible depth. Seven players are averaging at least a point per game, led by Rappuhn who has 14 goals and 15 assists thus far. Two other players – Parker Severson and Edison Symons – have scored 10 goals. Sixteen players have scored at least one goal, and 19 have registered at least one point.

That depth extends to the crease, where starting goalie Jack Jesko has a 1.32 goals-against average and .931 save percentage over eight games. Backup Jacob Winters has played three games and allowed just one goal on 42 shots.

The most remarkable statistics, however, are in the period breakdowns. The Hawks are outscoring opponents 19-5 in the first period, 25-5 in the second and 31-1 in the third.

“That first period a team will hang with us, but we just keep going,” said Bamberger, who noted that each player on his team having a GPA of 3.0 or higher is actually the most remarkable statistic. “I’ve been coaching for 17 years, and it’s the deepest team we’ve had. Sometimes I’ve had top guys who were better, but I’ve never been able to have that many guys coming at you nonstop. If a team plays two lines against us, it’s going to be very difficult to keep up with our speed. There’s no weakness.”

The Hawks’ depth also creates a mental edge for the players.

“We can roll anybody out there, and I think any of our lines can play against anybody,” Rappuhn said. “We have confidence in everybody on our team. We have a trust in our teammates and what our coaches tell us, and that allows us to be a better team.”

It also keeps them sharp.

“If you have a bad game, you know another guy is coming for your spot,” senior defenseman and captain Joe Watson said. “It pushes us forward and gives us a little bit of competitiveness to keep our spots.”

Heritage’s rise didn’t happen overnight. The building blocks were laid nearly a decade ago through the Saginaw Jr. Spirit program, which gives youth players in the area a chance to play together against top-level competition.

“The goal was to have the best players from Saginaw, Midland and Bay City come together,” said Bamberger, who is the director of the Jr. Spirit, and added teams such as Midland Dow and Davison are also seeing the benefits of the program. “It’s one program that was kind of set up for the whole Tri-City Area.”

Much of Heritage’s nucleus played for the Jr. Spirit, many of the current Hawks winning one – or in some cases, two – state titles.

“They won back-to-back state championships, so they knew how to win,” said Watson, one of a handful of Heritage players who did not play for the Jr. Spirit. “That just kind of helped us out.”

With all this positive momentum, there could be a temptation to look ahead to another MHSAA Finals appearance. But the Hawks claim they instead are sticking to Bamberger’s advice of focusing on day-to-day improvement.

“I think our coaches have really put it in our minds that we can’t look ahead, because any team can beat us any night,” Rappuhn said. “We’re a really good team, but there are also a lot of good teams that we’re playing, so if we don’t come ready to play, any team can beat us. We try to worry about that game, and that period, and that shift. We don’t try to look ahead.”

Even when asked to reflect on what they’ve accomplished, and how it would feel to win the school’s first MHSAA title in hockey, the players stayed fairly grounded.

“It’s just been a really good experience to go through,” Watson said. “I strongly believe everyone on the team is not going to take it for granted if we do get back there. It would be pretty good to get there again, and hopefully win it.”

Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Saginaw Heritage players, including junior Connor Krauseneck (12), celebrate one of their many highlights this season. (Middle) Hawks senior Dane Senkowski (22) pushes the puck up ice as a Grandville player trails him. (Photos by Amy Best.)

Hockey Players Transferring Winter Puck Skills to Spring Golf Swings

By Tom Lang
Special for MHSAA.com

May 26, 2023

When the Michigan seasons shift from winter to spring, some high school golf teams are a little more eager than others for the hockey season to officially end.

This is especially true for the school golf programs in Brighton, Hartland and Muskegon Mona Shores – examples of boys teams that love having hockey players transition from the indoor frozen ice to play golf outdoors on the lush green grass.

“I would take a golf team full of hockey players any day,” said Hartland golf coach Nathan Oake. “I love them.”

We can tell, because his program is full of them.

Hartland and Brighton each have eight hockey players on their 16-golfer varsity and JV rosters.

Mona Shores has three hockey players this year, but usually has more. In 2023 it’s Oliver MacDonald (all-state honorable mention in hockey), Nathan McNarland and Nicholas Taylor, who was voted Division 1 all-state golf last spring, then leading his team to fifth place at the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Final.

Hartland’s Ian Kastamo (16) takes a faceoff against Brighton this winter. Brighton golfer Winston Lerch was also Division 1 all-state last year in golf and an assistant captain on the hockey team this winter that finished Division 1 runner-up to Detroit Catholic Central. Here in 2023, he shot a 65 to open the season at Oakland University for medalist and has committed to Grand Valley State for golf with his 72-stroke average.

Joining Lerch in the Bulldogs boys golf program are hockey players like Levi Pennala, winner of hockey’s Wall Award sponsored by State Champs as the top high school goalie. Pennala – who recently shot 72 at the Kensington Lakes Activities Association championship tournament, his career low for high school golf – finished in the top 30 last year at the LPD1 Final. Then early this spring when he was away at a high-level junior hockey tournament, freshman hockey player Adam Forcier stepped in and shot a school record 18-hole round for a freshman at 73. Jacob Daavetilla also works into the starting lineup at times.

Forcier tied the record of Davis Codd – who, as a pro hockey player on leave from the Saginaw Spirit OHL hockey team when COVID-19 shut down the league, won the LPD1 Final in 2021 for Brighton.

Brighton golf coach Jimmy Dewling said Codd was one of the earliest to prove to others you can play both hockey and golf and excel. In fact, that June in 2021, Codd went to an NHL scouting camp in Pennsylvania before the Golf Finals, drove overnight back to Forest Akers to play the two championship rounds, won the title, then immediately returned to Pennsylvania to resume the hockey camp.

“On our team, we believe, and TBone (Codd) was a perfect example of it, if there’s any time you have the opportunity to be competitive, it is going to make you a more well-rounded competitor and therefore better at your particular sport,” Dewling said.

“We like hockey players. In the winter, they have to think to where the puck is going, be smart enough to react, and understand how that emotion is going to carry over from one play to the next. When it’s your shift you have to forget about the last shift, or take something from the last shift and put it into the next shift, to have consistent play.

“It’s the same on the golf course,” Dewling continued. “It’s one hole to the next, one shot at a time, being tough, and that’s only going to come from competition reps. We love the athletic ability more so than anything; the toughness and competitiveness all year.”

In addition to Lerch and Pennala starting on varsity golf, they are joined by traditional golfers Matt Doyle, Riley Morton and Andrew Daily, who is committed to Wayne State and finished LPD1 runner-up last spring.

Mona Shores’ Nicholas Taylor fires an iron shot. Going into the 2023 golf postseason, Brighton is ranked No. 2 in Division 1. The Bulldogs have won the Next Tee Invite at Oakland Hills, the North Star Invite at Plum Hollow and the KLAA Conference Championship – earning Brighton’s first conference title since 2007. The Bulldogs also were runners-up at The Meadows Invite at Grand Valley State University. The team is averaging 297 for 18 holes.

Oake admitted this is a rebuilding year for Hartland’s golf program. The varsity lineup has only two returning players with varsity golf experience – Keller King and Brady Betteley.

“So, we opted to keep a group of tough competitors with a solid combination of speed and strength – and who are not concerned about the cold conditions that we play in,” Oake quipped.

Five others rotate into the Eagles’ golf starting lineup with King and Betteley: Isaac Frantti is an all-state hockey defensemen playing his first season of golf but shot a career-low 79 at American Dunes recently. He just signed a United State Premier Hockey League tender to play in Connecticut next year. Ian Kastamo scored the winning goal in Hartland’s Division 2 hockey championship victory in 2022, and LJ Sabala is a varsity hockey player as well.

Then there are two non-hockey freshmen getting shots to start occasionally – Dallas Korponic, who finished third at his weight at the Individual Wrestling Finals, and Michael Maurin. Five more sophomores and juniors are hockey players on the JV golf team.

We hope to be competitive with (Brighton) again soon, but they have the talent to make a big splash this year,” Oake said. “I also play golf at the same club as many Brighton players, so I see them quite a bit and we are friendly. When the Brighton team walked by our team on a recent Monday and all said hello to me and our guys, one of my players looked at me and said that this was the biggest difference between hockey and golf. In hockey, the small talk would be (traded) for the ice, and it would not be very nice out there.

“Either way, I believe both sports are filled with fierce competitors and respect, but when the game is over a handshake and a golf hat tip are offered to the victor.”

This story was updated and reposted with permission of MIGolfJournal.com.

PHOTOS (Top) Brighton takes a team photo after finishing third at last season’s LPD1 Final, and all five golfers are back this season including hockey players Levi Pennala (second from left) and Winston Lerch (second from right.) (Middle) Hartland’s Ian Kastamo (16) takes a faceoff against Brighton this winter. (Below) Mona Shores’ Nicholas Taylor fires an iron shot. (Photos courtesy of High School Sports Scene, Sapshots Photography and Mona Shores’ athletic department, respectively.)