HOUGHTON - Four years, three hockey players, one coach: it's a long journey on the ice with the Jeffers Jets.
This trio has one more chance to make a mark before the journey ends and will lead a group of Jets in different stages of their own prep hockey careers.
"This is my fourth season and the promise of my first three freshmen is now an expectation," Jeffers coach David Bekkala said of seniors Travis Wesa, Matt Mantta and Ross Michaels, the Jets' leadership core.
Ross Michaels moves the puck for Jeffers in a 2011-12 game against Houghton at MacInnes Student Ice Arena. Michaels, Matt Mantta and Travis Wesa are four-year players in their senior seasons for the Jets, who begin their season tonight in Negaunee. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
The three will begin their fourth season of Jeffers hockey tonight as they open Lake Superior Hockey Conference play at Negaunee.
Wesa has provided goals in bunches for the Jets throughout that span, and after a 2011-12 season in which he totaled 50-plus points (23 goals, 28 assists), the forward will be the linchpin of Jeffers' top line.
"He doesn't take a practice off. He's a powerful young man, he's strong on the puck, he's got a quick release and he has no fear," Bekkala said.
The Jets' 2012-13 schedule (home games in ALL CAPS):
Nov. 27at Negaunee
Nov. 30Gaylord (Bukovich)
Dec. 1Rochester Unit. (Bukovich)
Dec. 6at Kingsford
Dec. 14Flint Powers (at Gaylord)
Dec. 15Big Rapids (at Gaylord)
Dec. 28at Escanaba Tournament
Dec. 29at Escanaba Tournament
Jan. 4NEW YEAR'S
Jan. 5NEW YEAR'S
Jan. 7at L'Anse
Jan. 11at Sault Ste. Marie
Jan. 12Cheboygan (at Sault)
Jan. 18Shaw (at Milwaukee)
Jan. 19Skokie, Ill. (at Milwaukee)
Jan. 22at Houghton
Jan. 28at Hancock
Feb. 5 L'ANSE
Joining Wesa to start the season will be senior Troy Dunstan and junior Tyler Bailey, returners who chipped in a combined eight goals last season and both bring speed to the table.
Mantta played defense for the first three years of his high school career, laying aside offensive proclivities for the good of the program. This season, a chance has developed for him to lead another forward line.
Bekkala complimented Mantta's size, hands and speed and said "It's a combination that's fun to watch and fun to coach."
Mantta will start out with sophomore Nicholas Harris and junior Brady Guilbault.
Three more newcomers add grit to the Jeffers attack: Kevin Semmens, Collin Hagan and Jedd Kangas.
On the blue line, four-year senior Ross Michaels brings experience, leadership and some very tangible physical skills.
"He plays hockey like he plays football, one of the most exceptional athletes I've ever witnessed," Bekkala said.
Michaels scored nine times from his defense position last year, including five power-play goals and a hat trick, and took less than a penalty minute per game.
He will be joined in the ranks of top defense contributors by Anthony Harris and Tylor Rickard, both returners, while Mitchel Kumpula, William Kangas and Stephen Butina are newcomers who will be brought up to speed.
Though half the defense corps is new, the goaltender is not, and he brings a solid track record.
After stepping into the starting job full-time, Dax Durocher, now a junior, started 22 games and posted an .878 save percentage and 4.04 goals-against average. They might not be eye-popping numbers, but remember Durocher faced an average of 33 shots a night last year.
"Dax has grown into himself, his confidence has grown, he understands the team is behind him," Bekkala said.
After playing the Miners tonight, Jeffers embarks on a challenging 2012-13 schedule that will include Flint Powers and Big Rapids at the Gaylord D-3 Invite, both schools that have played in multiple state finals, plus a road trip to the Sault for the first time, in addition to always-tough LSHC play.
Bekkala admits that his team has a few rough edges but intends to make up for it with tenacity and will, just like that trio has over the last three years.
"It seems like we have a passion for hockey, not necessarily a hockey pedigree, but kids who truly love the game," he said.