Powers Pursuing Flint's 1st Hockey Title

January 26, 2016

By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half

BURTON — Flint Powers Catholic was on upset alert, locked in a 3-3 tie with unheralded Mount Pleasant after squandering a 3-0 lead.

It was time for a hero to emerge for the Chargers.  

But who? 

The team's leading goal scorer left the game with an injury, as did another of the team's top point producers.

So, of course, it was a player who had only one goal all season (sophomore Josh Warda) who broke the tie with 6:09 remaining, propelling the second-ranked hockey team in Division 3 to a 6-3 victory at Crystal Fieldhouse.

Of course.

For Powers, there is no such thing as an unexpected hero.

The Chargers' seemingly endless quest to produce the Flint area's first MHSAA hockey championship isn't being spearheaded by one superstar player or one explosive line.

Rather, Powers has built a 14-1-1 record with a lineup that is remarkable in terms of sheer balance and depth.

The Chargers' top eight scorers are all within nine points of each other, led by Brendan Smith and Conor Witherspoon with 24 points each. Smith has 11 goals and 13 assists, while Witherspoon has 10 goals and 14 assists.

Following closely behind are Jon Thomas (6 goals, 17 assists), Chase Knoblock (12 goals, 7 assists), Mason Weiss (6 goals, 13 assists), Cam Lieffers (6 goals, 10 assists), Brendan Walker (3 goals, 13 assists) and Jake Polakowski (2 goals, 13 assists).

"We've had teams in the past that are pretty top-heavy," 10th-year Powers coach Travis Perry said. "Right now, you can't focus on one line. We have three lines that can score, and we've got a fourth line that can play, too. This is the first year since I've been here that we can roll four lines consistently."

One of those top-heavy teams was last year's squad. Powers got all the way to the MHSAA Division 3 Semifinals before losing 4-1 to Houghton. That team was led by all-stater Mike Forman, who had 61 points. Jeff Polakowski was second with 52 points. The drop-off was steep after that, with Witherspoon ranking third on the team at 23 points. The next two scorers tied for fourth with 18.

"Mike Forman was our leading scorer last year," Smith said. "He could put up points. He always had a target on his back every game. It was tough for him sometimes to get open and score goals. On this team, we have a group of guys who are all pretty close in stats. It's hard for teams to target one of our guys. They get one of our guys, and another one of our guys is going to be open all game long."

Powers hopes this balanced approach will finally pay off with an MHSAA championship March 12 at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth.

The Chargers have the most successful hockey program in Michigan that hasn't won it all. They own a record 32 Regional championships, one more than Trenton. Trenton, of course, has 14 MHSAA Finals championships, second only to Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood's 17.

Powers has been to 19 MHSAA Semifinals and seven title games. The Chargers' best shot at the championship came in 2008 when they controlled play for most of the game, only to lose 1-0 in overtime to Calumet in the Division 3 Final. It's a loss that still haunts Perry, whose team lost 3-1 to Cranbrook Kingswood in the championship game two years later.

Although Genesee County at one time had more than 20 schools playing hockey, it still has not won an MHSAA championship. Teams from Genesee County are 0-12 in the Finals, with five schools reaching the title game at least once. After coming two victories short of ending that streak last season, the returning Chargers immediately focused on this season.

"It was a heartbreaker, but I know everybody was determined at the end of the season to come back out and have a better result this year," senior forward Charlie Start said. "It'd be amazing having that reputation of being the first team in Genesee County to win a state championship."

Powers typically plays a tough regular-season schedule, expecting to take some lumps that will pay off come playoff time. Last year's team, for instance, went 17-8 in the regular season before reaching the Semifinals. The schedule remains tough, but the lumps have been few.

The only loss for the Chargers was a 3-1 decision to ninth-ranked Sault Ste. Marie on Dec. 11 in the Division 3 Showcase in Gaylord. Powers played a 3-3 tie on Jan. 9 against Detroit U-D Jesuit, the third-ranked team in Division 1.

The only team ranked ahead of Powers in Division 3 is Grand Rapids Catholic Central (13-1), which eliminated the Chargers in the 2011, 2012 and 2014 MHSAA Quarterfinals. If they meet this season, it will be in the Quarterfinals on March 9 at Munn Arena in East Lansing.

"Really, it's just a number," Smith said of Powers' ranking. "We don't come in thinking, 'Hey, we're No. 2 in the state.' We're coming in trying to be consistent every game, playing how we know. We're not letting that No. 2 get to our heads and get our egos up."

Before Powers can entertain thoughts of a matchup with Grand Rapids Catholic Central or hoisting the championship hardware in Plymouth, the Chargers must first get past one of their toughest opening-round assignments ever. Powers will travel to Saginaw-Bay Ice Arena on Feb. 29 to play a Pre-Regional game against No. 5 Saginaw Heritage on the Hawks' home ice.

"It's one of those things where one of the top five teams in the state goes home the first night," Perry said.

Asked if this was his best team yet at Powers, Perry hesitated.

"Uh," he said. "I don't want to say that yet. We'll see what happens when we get to March. It's definitely been the most enjoyable season so far, just because of the lack of seniors. Seniors usually run your team, and they're the core. We have three great seniors and they've done a great job, but we're bottom-heavy right now.

"This is one of those weird years where this is the least amount of seniors we've had in my 10 years. We have almost every guy coming back. I'd think we'd be just as strong next year, if not stronger."

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) Flint Powers Catholic hockey players huddle up in front of the net this season. (Middle) Forward Conor Owen prepares to unload a shot during pregame warmups. (Below) The Chargers are paced by a large group of contributors, and this group catches a quick break. (Photos courtesy of Flint Powers Catholic.)

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.)