By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal

MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Lumberjacks hit the ice tonight for the opening of training camp, and expectations couldn’t be higher.

That’s because last year’s team finished very strong, missing the United States Hockey League playoffs by a single point.lumberjacks 5 years logo

Twelve players from that team return, including league scoring champion Matheson Iacopelli (formerly known as Matt), plus several talented additions who came via trade or the junior draft.

So after four years of struggling in the USHL standings, the fifth season could prove to be the one the Lumberjacks and their fans have been waiting for.

“It’s real exciting. Expectations are high,” said Lumberjacks coach Todd Krygier, who is starting his second season with the club.

Part of the enthusiasm surrounding this season’s team involves last season’s finish.

After sputtering in the standings for most of the season, the Lumberjacks won 10 of their final 15 games, and only lost the final playoff spot in the last game of the season.

Twelve players from that final roster are back in camp, and everyone hopes they will continue to click.

Many of the returnees are forwards, which bodes well for scoring prospects this season. They are Iacopelli (41 goals to lead the league last year), Mason Jobst, Haralds Egle, Chris Dodero, Jack Rowe, Matej Paulovic, Robbie DeMontis and Cooper Marody.

There are three returning defensemen – Joseph Cecconi, Daniel Willett and Christian Wolanin.

Also back is goaltender Eric Schierhorn, who impressed everyone with his play down the stretch last season.

Iacopelli had an eye injury over the summer and is not working out, but is close to getting medical clearance to play, Krygier said. Egle is having visa problems while trying to fly in from his home country of Latvia, but is expected within days,

Three newcomers are USHL veterans – forwards Griffen Molino (8 goals, 31 assists for Sioux City last season) and Tom Marchin (6 goals, 12 assists for Lincoln), and defenseman Ryan Mantha. The forwards were acquired via trade while Mantha came in the dispersal draft from the league champion Indiana Ice, who suspended operations this year.

That sort of experience was nowhere to be found at this time last season. Krygier had just been hired as coach a few months before, and came too late to have input on draft selections.

So the team spent months – far beyond training camp – evaluating players and figuring out who fit and who didn’t. There were frequent trades and other types of personnel moves, and Krygier didn’t find the right combination of players until the last few months of the season.

“Last year we were coming in blind –we had to evaluate and pick a team and see if guys could play – it was just a long, hard process,” Krygier said. “This year we already know what players we have. We will be able to get right down to business and start working without worrying if someone can play hockey.

“It’s like night and day compared to last year.”

The rest of the training camp roster is comprised of rookies: forwards Mike Maiden, Dante Palecco, David Keefer and Kevin Dineen; defensemen Mitch Eliot (Lumberjacks No. 1 draft pick), Bo Hansen, Ryker Killins, David Trinkberger and Max Gottlieb; and goalie Michael Laterella.

Most of those players should make the team, since the Lumberjacks have 25 in camp and are allowed to carry 23 on the roster in the regular season.

The Lumberjacks will work out at L.C. Walker Arena for the next week, before kicking off their exhibition schedule Sept. 5 against the Team USA Under 18 squad in the USHL Atlantic Challenge in New York.

They open the regular season Sept. 26 in Ann Arbor against the Team USA Under 17 squad. The home opener is Sept. 27 against Madison.