By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
SAGINAW TOWNSHIP — Conventional wisdom suggests that Saginaw Heritage received an easier path to an MHSAA hockey championship with its drop from Division 2 to Division 3 this season.
While competing against smaller schools might improve a team's championship hopes in other sports, that scenario doesn't apply to hockey.
All three divisions in the MHSAA Tournament are loaded with traditional powerhouses. The big schools in Division 1, headlined by Detroit Catholic Central, obviously have strength in sheer numbers. In Division 2, Trenton and Birmingham Brother Rice hold their own against anybody year in and year out. Down in Division 3, the road to an MHSAA championship features formidable roadblocks in the form of non-public school heavyweights like Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood and any team strong enough to survive a brutal Upper Peninsula Regional.
So, it's pretty much a case of picking your poison.
"I don't think it matters what division you're in," Heritage coach J.J. Bamberger said. "We saw we were in Division 3, and it doesn't matter. Our first-round game against Flint Powers isn't anything different than us being in our first game against Midland High or Midland Dow the last few years. It's not like it gets any easier in any division you're in. In Division 1, 2 or 3, there are a lot of good teams. Hancock, the Division 3 No. 4 team, just beat the No. 1 team in Division 2. It's not any easier wherever you are."
What seemed like a break for Heritage quickly changed when the opening-round pairings were drawn. Right off the bat, the Hawks will face one of the premier Division 3 programs in the state in Flint Powers Catholic at 6 p.m. Feb. 29 at Saginaw-Bay Ice Arena, the Hawks' home rink. Powers has been in the Quarterfinals 14 times in 16 years of Division 3 play, winning a record 32 Regional championships since the MHSAA began sponsoring a hockey tournament in 1974-75.
It will be Heritage's first postseason game in Division 3 after being a Division 2 squad ever since the MHSAA went to a divisional format in 2000. Heritage has made the Quarterfinals six times in Division 2, reaching the Semifinals three times.
Having home-ice advantage against Powers will be a boost for the Hawks, though they may not need one. They have already made a statement to the rest of Division 3, going into Powers' home arena on Feb. 2 and skating off with a decisive 5-2 victory over a team that was riding a 12-game unbeaten streak and No. 2 ranking in Division 3 at the time.
"They're pretty deep," Powers coach Travis Perry said. "Their top line has got a lot of speed, and they gave us a lot of problems. We have to find a way to get ready for them."
That victory put Heritage in sole possession of first place in the Saginaw Valley League, the only thing that mattered to the Hawks on that night. Any thoughts of the game being a postseason preview were brushed aside.
"It's a big win," junior goalie Danny Yockey said. "We haven't won the Saginaw Valley League in seven years; it's ours to lose now."
"It's part of our process of trying to win our league," Bamberger said. "We're taking it one game at a time. We're not worried about anything come playoff time. I told the guys, 'Let's not make this about anything other than tonight.'"
Perhaps an even greater statement was made the following weekend when Heritage ended Hancock's 11-game winning streak, beating the currently second-ranked Bulldogs 4-3 on Feb. 5 in Trenton. The next day, the Hawks won 3-0 over Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central, which was No. 14 in Division 3 last week.
A four-game winning streak following an 11-1 loss to Toledo St. Francis on Jan. 29 had the Hawks at 17-2 and ranked No. 6 in Division 3 entering this week. The most recent rankings, which came out Wednesday, saw Heritage climb to the top spot.
"It's the chemistry," junior forward Sam Spaedt said. "Most of us juniors and seniors mesh together. We're having fun in the locker room. We're having fun on the ice. The coaches are great, too. The leadership is good. That's what's getting the job done."
Spaedt is far and away Heritage's leading scorer with 42 points, but there's plenty of depth throughout the rest of the lineup. Devan Bayne has 27 points, Gavin Dietrich 26, Chris Cornford 21, Zach Dornseifer 20, Brandon Ashley 17, Hunter Parasiliti 17 and Spencer Vondette 16.
Dietrich's 15 goals and Spaedt's 31 assists are team highs.
"We have a lot of forwards who can really go and really skate," Bamberger said. "We get some different scoring from different lines. I don't consider our fourth line a fourth line, because a fourth line generally doesn't play. Our fourth line not only plays, but they contribute. Each line had a goal (against Powers). From a tenacity standpoint, our guys keep going, keep going; you're going to wear teams down."
Spaedt has been the consummate setup artist for the Hawks, with his point total leaning heavily toward assists. He has 11 goals to go with his 31 assists. Three of those goals have come while shorthanded. His goals have come in bunches, with four two-goal games. He's had at least three assists five times.
"I'm always in a pass-first mentality," Spaedt said. "The guys are great. They bury the puck after I give it to them. If I have a chance to score, I'll take it. I'm happy if the guys give me the puck. The team really meshes well; that's part of the points, too."
For all of his playmaking prowess, Spaedt still ranks third on the team in goals.
"He scores, too," Bamberger said. "To be honest with you, I didn't realize that he's got (11) goals and 30-some assists. I think it's because he's a real smart player. More so than that, we have a lot of finishers on our team. We have a lot of guys who can put it in the net. Whoever he's giving it to, they're putting the puck in the net."
Yockey has played the majority of minutes in goal for Heritage, posting a 12-2 record, a 2.64 goals-against average and an .888 save percentage. In his last three games, all against state-ranked Division 3 teams, he has a 1.67 GAA and a .929 save percentage. Devin Wolfgang is 4-0 with two shutouts, a 0.57 GAA and a .966 save percentage as the backup goalie.
"The forwards are really good at back-checking and we're just smart in our zone," Yockey said.
Before Heritage can focus on the rematch with Powers, the Hawks will look to close out the Saginaw Valley championship with games against Mount Pleasant tonight and Bay City Central on Feb. 17. The pre-tournament tuning-up phase will include a game against Howell, the seventh-ranked team in Division 1, on Feb. 24.
Bill Khan served as a sportswriter at The Flint Journal from 1981-2011 and currently contributes to the State Champs! Sports Network. 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’s Mitch Wise, right, prepares for a faceoff during a recent game against Flint Powers Catholic. (Middle) Leading scorer Sam Spaedt rips a shot for the Hawks. (Photos by Bill Khan.)
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.)