USPHL Premier 2021-22 Preview Series: Mountain Division
The Mountain Division, new to the USPHL in 2020-21, delivered on its promises of excitement, drama, a high skill level and several commitments to high-level NCAA Division III institutions.
Could Year 2 be even better?
The coaches across the division certainly believe so. The parity is built in, considering the fourth-seeded Utah Outliers pulled off a few upsets on its way to the National Championships. There, the Outliers represented themselves well with a win and also an early lead in their game against the eventual champions the Charlotte Rush.
Below, we profile all five Mountain Division teams. Check back on USPHL.com every day from now to Sept. 21 for new Premier (or Elite) divisional previews, coming to an end just prior to the first games played in the New England Division.
Order is 2020-21 regular season finish.
Season Opener: Fri., Sept. 17, at Northern Colorado Eagles
The first Mountain Division regular season champions just barely outlasted their closest competition in a razor-tight three-team battle down the stretch. They start out the new season with three very important games this Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Greely Ice Haus, home of the Northern Colorado Eagles. Knowing most of their Mountain competition very well from their time in their prior league together, you don’t have to tell Coach Kenny Orlando how important every single game will be, even No. 1 on Sept. 17.
“The difference early on with this year’s team is the maturity level,” said Orlando. “There are many players that have been through the ringer last year with us and know what to expect. The Ogden Mustangs will be a very skilled and high IQ team this season. The fresh faces we brought in match the play style and intensity that our returning players bring to the table.”
The Mustangs are excited to build around all three of their returning All-Star forwards, ‘01 Luke Washco and ‘02’s Cade Herrera and Jake Meure, as well as ‘01 defenseman Michael Heller. The three forwards totaled 175 regular season points between them. Heller had 33 points in 43 games.
This core group has been heavily supplemented by very strong newcomers. This group includes Andrew Alonzo, who was a top scorer for the Wenatchee Wolves AAA squad in his home state of Washington; his teammate Luke Faas, an offensive defenseman and fellow ‘03 from Idaho; and Dimitri Voyatzis, an ‘03 and career Anaheim Jr. Duck, whose playmaking abilities will be evident from all who watch early on.
Orlando goes into the first game on Friday knowing that the Mustangs have a target on their backs as division winners from last year.
“We expect the Mountain Division to be the most competitive division in the USPHL again this season. The caliber of players and coaches we have in this division makes for a great game every single night,” added Orlando. “Every team being over .500 last season speaks volumes for how tight the race is. Ogden expects to be at the top every year, but if it wasn’t us, we know Steve Haddon with [Northern Colorado] will always have a top notch product as well.”
Northern Colorado Eagles
Season Opener: Fri., Sept. 17, vs. Ogden Mustangs
When the Eagles hit the ice Friday evening against the Mustangs, very familiar foes will be out there against each other for at least one more go-round. Veterans abound on both teams – and not just “anybody,” but veteran All-Stars, including returning Eagles blueliner Bayly Fryfogle (pictured).
“Our staff feels this is one of the most well rounded groups we have put together,” said Head Coach Steve Haddon. “We felt it was important to have as much depth as possible, especially in the Mountain Division, where we play three- game sets. We might not have any 100-point guys but almost everyone can play up and down the lineup, which gives us options through the year.”
Haddon saw the inaugural USPHL team last year as being more “top-heavy,” a characteristic that he does not see with this year’s squad.
“Again, I feel this group is more equal all the way around. Last season, we were more top heavy and there was a bigger gap with veterans and first year players,” Haddon said.
The largest impact of veterans appears to be on the blueline this year, with the ‘01 Fryfogle joining Xavier Fortin and Evan Wammes as ‘02’s all coming back to the defense.
“Bayly, coming off an all-star campaign entering his fourth season, is dynamic and will lead our D core,” said Haddon.
“Bayly had a breakout season last year with 35 points in 44 games and I think he’ll crack the 50-point threshold. He moves the puck so well at the back,” added Eagles Director of Media Brendan Price.
“Xavier is a two-way player that has a strong release and looks really seasoned,” added Haddon. “Evan, now 19, is entering his third season of junior hockey [and second with the Eagles, after previously playing in 2019-20]. His vision and hockey IQ is top notch. Closing in on 7-feet on skates, he has a heavy shot along with that reach that makes it very difficult on opponents.”
Forward Quinn O’Reilly brings “that Brad Marchand edge” as an ‘02 and fifth-year junior, while Brayden Fryfogle plays an up-tempo game with a quick release.
Newcomers Ethan Pitzman and Carson Weingartner have both had success in the USPHL Premier already. Hayden Sotheran, Matteo Langlois and Alexandre Bedard have also had success at previous levels.
“Every night is a four-point night in the Mountain. If you don’t bring it for a full 60 minutes, you’re in trouble,” said Haddon.
Season Opener: Fri., Oct. 1, at Provo Riverblades
If this were a high-stakes card game, the Bulls would be watching the eyes and seeing if hands were ever so slightly shaking. The Bulls would raise and be raised in even measures by their Mountain Division rivals. They seem to have done everything they can over the course of the last six months to walk away with the whole pot – or, watch an opponent do the same, having lost by one thin, plastic-coated card, just one face card rank off the winners.
After all, that’s how tight the Mountain Division was in 2020-21, and seeing their opponents off-seasons, the Bulls constantly worked to see and raise their foes’ moves.
“I’m very excited about the group of players on our team for the upcoming year,” said Bulls General Manager and Assistant Coach David Nelson. “The guys have bought into what it means to play in Pueblo in our community. They have high energy and effort levels that will put us in positions to be a very competitive team for the upcoming year. After moving 16 guys on from last year’s roster, we are a much younger team this year, but also have a great number of players that have played at the junior level before and know what it takes to play at this level.”
This includes returning All-Stars Benjamin St-Onge up front and Connor Williams on the back end. St-Onge, an ‘01 who was drafted by the NCDC South Shore Kings in 2020, and is the Bulls’ all-time points leader already with 108 total points for the organization.
Williams, an ‘01 from Michigan, scored 20 points in his first USPHL season at the blue line, where he also led the team in blocked shots (74) and he was second in takeaways (291).
Returning forward Justin Legault (‘02) contributed in many ways as well last year and is back for a more full second season with Pueblo.
Newcomers to watch include forwards ‘02’s Isaac Hood and William Dobson, and ‘04 Owen Ames. Hood is a strong goal-scorer from the West Coast Renegades AAA, Dobson comes in with USPHL Premier (and Nationals) experience, and Ames hails from Spokane, Wash., also Hood’s hometown.
“I believe we play in the best division in the USPHL in the Mountain Division,” said Nelson. “Each team finds a way to put together a team that is very competitive and it is hard to come by wins in this division. You have to show up every night ready to play.”
Season Opener: Fri., Sept. 24, at Provo Riverblades
The Outliers won, won again and again and again, coming out of the Mountain Division playoffs a sweet 4-0. All three of their opponents having finished higher in the standings, but suddenly they were seeing the Cinderella story of the group packing for Virginia and the USPHL Premier National Championships. There, as aforementioned, they earned one win and forced the eventual title-winners to shake off their cobwebs after going 2-1 up on Charlotte after a period.
Paul Taylor is just as excited for 2021-22, believing the Outliers can of course hang with anyone in such a tight conference as the Mountain.
“The Outliers coaching staff is excited about the makeup of its team coming into the 2021-22 season,” said Taylor. “We have a good mix of veteran leadership and some younger players who we believe will make an impact. We feel our team has good speed and we expect to have a high compete level.”
The 2021-22 Outliers are a younger overall, and Taylor sees a “well-balanced team, with a strong defensive core, good goaltending and some offensive punch.”
Veterans Trent Gephart, Nikolas Schwab and Noah Bourassa lend to the offensive punch up front, while three ‘01 blueliners come back in Jakub Suran, Helvis Rudzajs and Kaden Whaley.
Bourassa (‘01) joined later in the season, but made an impact from the start. Gephart (‘01) is in his third season with the Outliers and fourth season in the USPHL, and Schwab (‘02) was a top 10 scorer for the Outliers last year with 18 points.
Suran put up 11 points from the blue line in his first North American season coming out of the Czech Republic. Latvian Rudzajs was impressive as a second-year Outlier on the blue line, and Whaley is a leader as a third-year Outlier out back. They will be good leaders for all positional players, including the many newcomers.
“I expect a lot of our new players to step up and be big contributors for the team,” said Taylor. “I expect the Mountain Division to be very competitive again. Last season, it proved to be the tightest Division at the Premier level and I would expect that will continue this season. Every team is a threat and there are no easy games. It will be a battle all season long.”
Season Opener: Fri., Sept. 17, vs. Utah Outliers
The Riverblades seemed like world beaters once the 2020 calendar fell and 2021 took its place, as the first-year Provo organization earned 16 of their 22 wins on the year after January 1. They went 10-0 from mid-January to mid-February, and went 16-2-2-1 in their 2021 portion of the schedule.
Helping to propel the team to these heights included returning All-Star Nicholas Urtis (‘02), who earned a call-up to the NCDC’s Islanders Hockey Club during the season as well. He scored 34 points in 24 games, joining in early December and becoming a key to the New Year resurgence, scoring points in each of his final 13 games.
Blake Blevins, a hard-nosed ‘01 forward, brought two prior USPHL junior seasons to the Riverblades last year and returns after a 14-point season. Garrett Lazaro (‘02) made a successful jump to the Premier level from the USPHL 18U level the year before, and he comes back for his third USPHL and second Riverblades season.
— Joshua Boyd/USPHL.com
(September 17, 2021)