By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – In the United States Hockey League, it helps to have a lot of returning players from the previous season, particularly if your team was pretty good.
That wasn’t the case for the Muskegon Lumberjacks in the 2013-14 season. They were among the most inexperienced teams in the league, and paid the price by having a so-so record in the first half of the season.
But the Jacks matured and had a great second half, coming within one victory of making the league playoffs.
The best part is that 15 players from the season-ending roster will be in town this week for the team’s annual Tryout Camp, joining dozens of other young players who are hoping for a shot at making the 2014-15 Lumberjacks.
The top returnee is forward Matt Iacopelli, a first-team USHL All-Star who led the league last season with 41 goals, and tied for seventh overall in scoring with 67 points.
Another key returnee is goalie Eric Schierhorn, who started the majority of the games for the Lumberjacks last season.
Co-captain Mason Jobst is also back after scoring 10 goals and a team-high 35 assists last season.
Then there’s forward Jack Rowe, who came over in a late-season trade with Fargo and scored 10 crucial goals during the final playoff push.
The rest of the returning players are forwards Cooper Marody, Chase Hatcher, Haralds Egle, Robbie DeMontis, Chris Dodero and Matej Paulovic and defensemen Daniel Willett, Joe Cecconi, Christian Wolanin and Zac Goodrich.
Mark Yanis, a former Lumberjack defenseman who played the past two seasons at Penn State University, is also back in camp with a year of USHL eligibility remaining.
“Last year I think we had the second youngest team in the league, so it’s going to be great having all that experience,” said Bryan Fongers, the Lumberjacks’ communications coordinator. “I know the entire front office is very excited. I think everyone feels we can contend for a championship with what we have back and the players we drafted.”
The Tryout Camp, which begins Saturday and runs through next Friday, will be conducted in two phases.
The first camp, which will take place Saturday through Monday, will be for prospects. These are generally younger players who were not picked in the recent USHL draft, but hope to capture the attention of Lumberjack coaches, according to Fongers.
A handful of players from that camp will probably be invited to stick around for the main camp, which is for players with a realistic chance of making the team.
The main camp, featuring the returnees, former affiliates and recent draft picks, will be next Tuesday through Friday.
The main camp will wrap up next Friday with the Black and Gold Game at the arena from 1-3 p.m.
Shortly after that game, the Lumberjacks will announce the 30-man roster that will be invited to preseason training camp in August. Teams are allowed to carry 23 players on their roster in the regular season, which is scheduled to begin the weekend of Sept. 26-27.
There is no guarantee that all of the returning players or top draft picks will end up on the Lumberjacks’ opening right roster. Many are committed to various college hockey teams, and a few might get a chance to break into the collegiate ranks this season.
And there are always a few draft picks who choose to stay home and play another year of midget or high school hockey before joining the professional development circuit.
But most of the returnees and top picks will probably be on the season-opening roster, according to Fongers.