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.)
Twenty years ago, Kwin Morris and Jeff Guy were teammates on an MHSAA Quarterfinal-qualifying hockey team.
Guy even scored the winning goal in the Regional Final for Bay Area Reps, which topped Traverse City West 2-1.
This summer’s accomplishment, though, will go deeper in the history books.
Guy and Morris teamed up with Joe Lorenz to complete a dream that started a decade ago. They crossed all five of the Great Lakes on paddle boards while raising awareness and funds for water quality.
They put their balance, endurance and stick-handling skills together for the cause.
‘After 10 years and over one hundred grand raised for the lakes, it feels amazing,” Morris said. “I think the best part is knowing my kids will grow up knowing their old man did something cool for the environment in a unique way.”
It all started at a December social event in Traverse City. Guy, a financial adviser, and Morris, a middle school science teacher, had just gotten into paddle boarding when they began to wonder if they could cross Lake Michigan.
Lorenz, a personal trainer, promptly gave assurances they could — and joined them — even though he had never been on a paddle board prior to the holiday gathering.
Morris, Guy and Lorenz successfully crossed Lake Michigan in 2015, pausing in the cold of the night to look at the Northern Lights. They finished the nearly 100-kilometer journey in just under 25 hours. That accomplishment convinced them to launch Stand Up for Great Lakes, a non-profit organization to raise money and awareness for the protection of the lakes.
The trio also is supporting the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research, a non-profit housed at the University of Michigan.
“It feels amazing to have finished crossing all five lakes and complete a lifelong goal,” Guy acknowledged. “The dollars and awareness we have raised is incredible, and hopefully it continues to grow.”
Lake Huron was the toughest to cross by far, the former Reps noted. The 90-mile, 29-hour paddle brought seven hours of rain and high waves.
“Plus Joe knocked me in and Jeff fell in after catching a fish,” Morris observed.
Ontario was the team’s second-hardest challenge and the shortest paddle. Huge waves from the side all day took quite a toll on the paddlers, who were accompanied by safety boats on each crossing.
Lake Superior featured glassy water, a spectacular sunset and the paddlers pausing to conduct a ceremony over the Edmund Fitzgerald shipwreck. The northernmost Great Lake ranks as the group’s favorite.
Guy graduated from Kalkaska High School in 2003 and went on to play hockey at Hope College. He also played football, baseball and golf for the Blazers. He and his wife, Melissa, have a daughter, Emma.
Morris graduated in 2005 from Elk Rapids High School, where he also played baseball. He went on to get a teaching degree from Western Michigan University. He and his wife, Megan, have two children, Fitz and Knox. He now works for his former school district, teaching science.
The pair played for the Reps through a co-op hosted by Traverse City St. Francis that included athletes from Charlevoix, Elk Rapids, Kalkaska, Kingsley, Lake Leelanau St Mary, Mancelona and Suttons Bay. The Reps’ first coach was Michigan High School Hockey Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee Rex Luxton. He coached through 2008.
Morris and Guy look back at their high school playing days and coach with fondness.
“We had some great teams, and I think I still have the career goal record there,” Guy recalled. “Also, our coach on the Reps Rex Luxton was highly motivational to me while playing for him and later in life.”
Morris echoed Guy.
“I loved the whole experience,” Morris said. “Playing for my high school … Friday night games … school rivalries … playing for Rex Luxton … amazing friends and teammates — almost surreal that it will have been 20 years.”
The former coaching staff of the Reps are not at all surprised Morris and Guy challenged themselves to make a difference for the Great Lakes.
The coaching staff remembers Guy as a natural scorer coming through with big goals, and Morris as a strong two-way player who scored five goals in one period in Sault Ste. Marie. The past coaches also remember all the traveling the two did for practice and games because of the geographic nature of the squad.
“I had no idea they had any interest in the water kind of stuff,” Luxton said of his former players’ feat. “When I started following their bid to raise awareness, it didn’t surprise me they would attempt something like this.
“I think it illustrates how much determination they have and how much hard work they were willing to put in,” he continued. “It is just outstanding, particularly with the cold weather in the Great Lakes.”
Cody Inglis, a senior assistant director for the MHSAA, was an assistant coach for the Reps during all of Morris and Guy’s time with the co-op. He finds himself beaming with pride and happiness knowing these former players are giving back and making it a better world.
“What Jeff and Kwin have done physically and mentally to cross all of the Great Lakes on stand-up paddle boards is remarkable in itself,” Inglis pointed out. “When you add in the fact that they have put in charitable causes and the preservation of the Great Lakes as a reason for doing it – it makes it even more special.
“It’s not surprising given my recollection and remembrances of Jeff and Kwin, as they were really good hockey players and better people.”
High school hockey is where Morris and Guy’ friendship blossomed. Spending 24 or more hours together — and with Lorenz — has forged a greater lifetime bond that already had included being a part of each other’s weddings.
But they admit they had no inkling of this type of accomplishment back in high school.
“Sports were the most important thing in my life in high school,” Guy revealed. “Working really hard to win as many games as possible was the main goal – along with getting good grades and trying to get into a good college.”
But teamwork, learned on the ice and through other high school sports, can make anything possible.
“Any sport where you have to work as a team helps push yourself out of your comfort zone,” Morris concluded. “That's where the best things in life happen.”
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PHOTOS (Top) Clockwise from top left: Jeff Guy celebrates a goal while playing for Traverse Bay Reps with Kwin Morris to his left, Guy (left) and Morris (right) take a photo after one of their paddle board trips, and Morris bringing the puck up the ice for the Reps. (Middle) Guy, Morris and Joe Lorenz take a photo together on the lake shore. (Below) Morris accepts a medal during the 2004-05 season. (Photos courtesy of Jeff Guy, Kwin and Jo Morris.)