Gremlins hope defense can help them win a championship

Houghton’s Dawson McKay returns as the team’s top scorer and captain for the Gremlins this season. (David Archambeau/Daily Mining Gazette)

HOUGHTON — After multiple seasons as the team to beat in the area, the Houghton Gremlins have had to sit on the sidelines the last two seasons and see their two rivals, the Hancock Bulldogs and the Calumet Copper Kings, compete for Division 3 state titles. The Gremlins have not won a title of their own since 1984, and they know it is a long, arduous path to get there.

However, despite graduating top-scorer and captain Jacob Kruse after last season, Gremlins head coach Corey Markham believes his team has the ability to get back to the regional championship again and even make it out of the area and challenge this season for a state title.

It will come down to one factor that the Gremlins have that perhaps other teams in the area do not: defense.

“To me, going into the season, defense is going to be the strength of our team,” said Markham. “It’s something that we are going to have to count on.”

The Gremlins return their starting goaltender, Will Stier, and much of their defensive corps from last season, including leaders Kevin Bostwick and Justin Norkol.

Stier, who will be playing his final season in Black and Orange, has seen a lot of action over the past three seasons. He struggled mightily at times last season, and Markham has seen him work hard to get his game straightened out in time for the start of the 2017-18 campaign.

“I don’t think he had his best season last year, and I think he would be the first one to admit that,” said Markham. “He had an injury late in the season, and that played a role.”

Stier will have to be on top of his game early because this season he will be challenged for the starting job by freshman Jimmy Pietila. Pietila has not been playing goaltender exclusively for several years, but he has grown into the position exponentially, and Markham loves his work ethic.

“The biggest thing you see is his competitive nature,” said Markham. “If you give me a goalie who competes hard all the time to keep the puck out of the net, I’ll take that. The top part of his game is that competitiveness and that’s why he is going to keep getting better.”

In front of the goaltenders, Bostwick and Norkol, both juniors, are in their third seasons on the Gremlins blueline. The duo has spent a lot of time together over the past two seasons and are now part of the leadership group this season.

Bostwick is the third-highest returning scorer after racking up 17 assists and 20 points a year ago. He sees the ice well and has proven versatile in every situation.

Norkol made huge strides last season offensively. After scoring one goal and five points as a freshman, he exploded last season, putting up five goals and 17 points.

“Kevin has made huge strides, vocally and leading by example,” said Markham. “Norkol has good short area quickness. He’s another kid that can see the ice well.”

Sophomore Ty Halonen will look to add some depth to the Gremlins defense after missing nearly half of last season with a concussion. He is joined this season by junior Brendan Erickson, a forward who made the transition to defense late last season.

Markham loves the hard work Erickson has put in to strengthen his game in his new role.

“He’s such a strong skater,” said Markham. “He’s a really good passer and he sees the ice very well. He’s going to be a big part of our defense.”

Up front, senior Dawson McKay is back for his fourth year with the team. After starting his junior year battling the effects of a shoulder injury, McKay racked up 23 goals, tying for the team lead, and 42 points, just four less than Kruse.

With a large frame, McKay, who will serve as captain this season, plays a physical game and possesses the kinds of hands that make him effective around the net.

“Dawson is going to be the guy that is going to have to lead us in scoring,” said Markham. “He gets better every year. He’s a strong kid. He handles puck extremely well for a guy his size.”

The biggest question that follows McKay into the season is a simple one: who will be able to get him the puck? Markham has penciled in senior Taavi Rajala and junior P.J. Donnelly on McKay’s wings for now.

Rajala is a steady winger who scored 13 goals and 28 points a year ago. Donnelly struggled a bit in his first season with the team, scoring just two goals and 12 points.

“P.J. has had a good early season here,” said Markham. “He’s another guy who is going to have to be counted on to start kicking in offensively.”

Both Rajala and Donnelly have also spent some time playing defense for the Gremlins last season, but Markham hopes they won’t need to act in that role again anytime soon.

“We prefer them to play forward,” said Markham. “They have some versatility and have done that. That is never a bad thing to have.”

After the top line, things begin to look a bit thin for the Gremlins. Markham is hoping that some of the returning forwards, junior Seth Francois, senior Clayton Sayen, senior Sam Raber and senior Darrian Raffaeli, can step up their games this season and give Houghton some secondary scoring.

Some new faces could also step in and have an impact this season. Junior forward Brad Gauthier saw action in two games last season. Sophomore forward Nico Rajala and defenseman Jiseung Choi could also see significant playing time. Choi is yet another skater who is comfortable at both ends of the ice, giving Markham another versatile player.

The Gremlins are playing an aggressive schedule again this season. They will host Hartland, Brother Rice, Rochester, Utica and Brighton at various points throughout the season while also playing Hancock and Calumet each twice. Markham would not have it any other way, as playing top-end competition should help his players learn what it takes to be successful at the varsity level.