HOUGHTON - There's a different feeling around Dee Stadium but it's not just the new Houghton High School hockey locker room.
It's the realization that, after collecting the program's first regional championship since 2004 and a berth in the Division 3 state championship game for the first time since 1995, the 2012-13 Gremlins are not the hunters, but the hunted.
"Last year was such a thrill to get to where we got to. The guys got that taste in their mouth and loved every second of it. They really want to do everything in their power to get back," coach Corey Markham said. "Teams are expecting us to be pretty strong this year, so we have to be prepared every single night because we're going to get the best shot out of everyone."
Houghton’s Ray Brice juggles the puck during a February game last season against Hancock at Houghton County Arena. The Gremlins open their 2012-13 season tonight at Negaunee. (DMG photo by Brandon Veale)
The Gremlins rode a stout defense and Tony Peltier, a four-year senior goaltender, to the title game last season before losing 3-0 to University Liggett School of Grosse Pointe Woods. Both will be drastically different this season, which begins tonight with a Lake Superior Hockey Conference road game at Negaunee.
"We got really good at playing team defense last year. That was our calling card and we were phenomenal. That's got to come a long way yet," Markham said.
After a seamless progression from Peltier through Cutter Hurst and James Wood, Markham begins his 14th season at Houghton's helm with something he hasn't had since his first: significant competition in the nets.
The Gremlins' 2012-13 schedule (home games in ALL CAPS)
Nov. 20at Negaunee
Nov. 30ROCHESTER UNITED
Dec. 7TC WEST
Dec. 8TC CENTRAL
Dec. 26Calumet (MacInnes)
Dec. 27MacInnes Classic
Jan. 11FOND DU LAC, WIS.
Jan. 14at L'Anse
Feb. 5at Kingsford
Feb. 9at Hancock
Feb. 11at Calumet
Feb. 14at Marquette
Feb. 18at Jeffers
Feb. 21at Hancock
"In 12 years, I've basically had three goalies that have played the majority. That's highly unusual," Markham said.
The two contenders are both sophomores: Marcus Gloss and Jayson Wiitala. Gloss, at about 6-foot-2, is a big netminder who uses a classical technique. Wiitala, who lost his entire freshman year to a knee injury, is more likely to make the athletic stop.
Markham said he expects to rotate the pair early in the season, at least until one seizes the job.
On the blue line, another four-year player, Hunter Rajala, will be vital to Houghton's success. Tristan Foltz is another top defenseman. Markham said the two won't always be paired together so they can be deployed as matchups permit.
Two others return from the 2011-12 campaign and will likely see increased roles: Davis Farrey and Zach Verran.
Three newcomers will bolster the back line. Freshman Cole Jepsen will have a regular role, while Chad Dunstan and Riley McKay will share time as the Gremlins' sixth defenseman.
Where Houghton will look most like it did last season is in the forward lines, where three of the five Gremlins who scored double-digit goals return: Connor Hannon, Jed Kallio and Ray Brice.
However, Markham will be splitting them up to balance the line-up.
The shifty Hannon and burly Kallio will join Cale Markham on the top unit, while Brice joins newcomer Spencer Donnelly and Casey Markham.
"That's the strength of our team: Our depth up front is very good, we skate extremely well. We should be able to score some goals this year," coach Markham said.
Brice led Houghton with 18 goals in the 2011-12 regular season, while Hannon and Kallio were two and three with 17 and 16, respectively.
Cale Markham went from the JV team to earning his way into 19 games on varsity last year. Coach Markham expects another big jump forward this season.
"He got great experience last year with that tournament run. He's just a good all-around playerwith a nose for the net and make a lot of real nice plays," coach Markham said.
Jonathan Bostwick joins returners Austin Erva and Seth Kaarto on the third line, while newcomers Cole Hagwell and Luke Haataja add depth and grit on the lower lines.
Houghton has several new trophies in the school case, but in a world where Calumet, Hancock, Kingsford and others remain major threats, those trophies aren't tickets to success without work in the new campaign.
"We're gonna have to score goals. With a new goalie breaking in and new defense, we're going to have to score goals," coach Markham said.