It’s been eight years since Grosse Pointe South played for an MHSAA Finals championship in ice hockey.
But even though we’re just past the halfway point of this season, the Blue Devils have shown they have what it takes to make a trip back to Plymouth for another title shot.
South is 13-2 and ranked No. 2 in Division 3 in the latest state coaches association poll. To say things have been clicking would be an understatement. Not only have the Blue Devils surprised most in the Metro Detroit area, they’re the surprise team, statewide, in their division.
Take one game recently as a prime example. Detroit Catholic Central is the reigning Division 1 champion and currently ranked No. 1. On Jan. 8, South traveled to Catholic Central’s home arena (USA Hockey Arena, also the home of the MHSAA Finals) and defeated the Shamrocks 4-3.
The result stunned many. Catholic Central entered the game having won its last six by shutout. Less than four minutes into the game South’s David Rivard scored off a pass from Keegan Spitz to end that scoreless streak.
In addition to this incredible win, the Blue Devils received an immeasurable amount of self-confidence.
One contributor who’s playing with supreme confidence is senior goaltender Will Strickler. A two-year starter, he also played as a sophomore – and in fact his first game was against Catholic Central.
“We got shelled, 9-0,” Strickler said. “In the last three years only two teams from Michigan have beaten CC – (Bloomfield Hills) Brother Rice and us. That (victory) made a statement. We’re for real. We also stopped their shutout streak, which was nice.”
Before the start of this season, there likely were few who thought this was possible. Last season South finished 7-18-2, losing to Warren De La Salle Collegiate 3-1 in a Division 3 Pre-Regional. The season before, South finished 9-16 and ended with a loss to Brother Rice 3-1 in a Division 2 Regional Final.
Even though the Blue Devils returned most of their starters this winter, there were concerns. The most obvious question was how this experienced team would play with a new coach.
Paul Moretz took over the program after last season, and this is his 22nd coaching hockey. A graduate of Port Huron High, Moretz started coaching when he was 21, almost immediately after graduating from Western Michigan University. He began with youth hockey in Port Huron before moving on to the Honey Baked Hockey Club and Littles Caesars Amateur Hockey League. He spent the last 10 seasons with Little Caesars, and though this is his first stint coaching high school hockey, he said the timing was right.
“The AAA team I coached was with me all the way up,” Moretz said. “We knew last year would be our last together, so that was going to be it.
“I applied for the South job and, to be honest, I had no clue (how good this team would be). I knew there was potential. I knew it was a good group of young men. I knew there was a group who wanted to work. I didn’t know if that would transform into wins.”
Of the 23 players Moretz has on varsity, 10 are seniors, most playing important roles. It’s common for a team with such success to be senior-dominated – although Moretz added that 13 potential returnees bode well for the team's future.
Spitz, a forward, leads the team in scoring with 18 goals and 16 assists. Adam Strehlke, who centers the top line, is next with 12 goals and 12 assists. Both are seniors. Next are two juniors, Aaron Vyletel (14 goals, seven assists) and Dean Therriault (eight goals, 13 assists).
South sports four captains, with Strehlke and Therriault joined by Xander Mills and Tommy Daudlin. All are seniors. “Our leaders are our captains,” Moretz said. “Quite frankly, we have a lot of leaders.”
Lacking in size, South plays fast. The Blue Devils chase the puck and attempt to create scoring chances with their forechecking.
South’s lack of physical play may have hurt in its two losses, both to state powerhouse Trenton. Trenton won the first game 3-2 in overtime and the second 2-0, with the second goal coming after South pulled its goalie. But South did send 35 shots on goal the first time, and 34 the next.
“We’re a puck-first team,” Strickler said. “Coach told us that against Trenton to let them make their runs. Just go for the puck. Playing physical hasn’t been a key for us.”
That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a concerted effort to play more consistently on the defensive end. Last season Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood downed South 10-2. This season, in the game immediately following the victory over DCC, South defeated Cranbrook Kingswood, 6-2.
Strehlke points to four reasons for his team’s turnaround. One is Moretz – and, partly because of the new coach, there’s a new attitude.
Strehlke also said players are more committed. And you can’t overlook the experience.
“(Moretz) is part of it,” he said. “But everyone has bought in. We’re playing better defensively. We’re allowing fewer shots. And Will has played well all year.
“You know winning, it’s more fun coming to the rink. Last year it wasn’t fun.”
To Moretz, coaching at this level is no different than it was for him coaching for Little Caesars or elsewhere. For one, he has his longtime assistant Nathan Reilly with him. Moretz allows Reilly the freedom to coach without micromanaging. Another key element, according to Moretz, is having his players pay attention to detail.
“They’re willing to do the little things,” he said. “They trust the game plan, and they execute it very well.”
Tom Markowski is a correspondent for the State Champs! Sports Network and previously directed its web coverage. He also covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Grosse Pointe South players celebrate during a 5-1 win over Riverview Gabriel Richard on Jan. 4. (Middle) Blue Devils senior Adam Strehlke (9) wins a faceoff during a 4-3 victory over Detroit Catholic Central on Jan. 8. (Photos courtesy of Brian McKenna and the Grosse Pointe South hockey program.)
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.)