Gielczyk: Big Rapids Building off Historic Season

After winning its first Division 2 regional championship since 2011 last year, the Big Rapids boys ice hockey team is hungry for more.

The Cardinals don’t play in a conference, so their entire season is based upon the playoffs and preparing for the postseason.

“We had a great leadership group last year, and just continued to work hard,” veteran Big Rapids coach Tim Blashill said. “It culminated in an overtime win over Alpena in the regional final.

“Both teams played well. It was really a hard fought game, and I thought momentum-wise it went both ways, and at the end we were able to get that overtime winner. Both goalies played fantastic.

“Unfortunately, we ran into a very good Calumet team in the quarterfinal. But, it was a very successful year.”

The Cardinals finished last year 18-9-2.  It was the most wins in program history since 2006, and their nine losses came against teams that were ranked in the top 10 in the state at various points in the season.

A 2-1 victory over Milford following a 3-0 shutout loss to White Lake Lakeland in the Soo Locks Shootout to open the 2017-18 regular season, the Cardinals hoped to again rise above the .500 level in a matchup against Cadillac (0-1) on Wednesday in the 131 Challenge Cup.

Despite losing seven seniors last year, the Cardinals don’t come into this season with a bare cupboard by any means.

One of the key returners is veteran goalkeeper Fletcher Bolda, a senior beginning his fourth year as the team’s starting netminder.

“It’s huge,” Blashill said of having Bolda back in the net. “He’s probably the best goalie I’ve had since I’ve been coaching here, (and) in the history of the program. He’s a game changer.

“He did have some opportunities to do some other things, and he’s looking forward to that, and I think he’s still on his way to do that. But, he’s going to play his last year of high school, and he’s going to continue to get better.

“This year, he’s taking on even more of a leadership role, which has been great to see. Having him back there gives us an opportunity to win every game we play. You can’t ask for any more as a coach.”

Also coming back are skaters James Hundersmarck, Connor Mathison and Thomas Crandell. To that group the Cardinals added six new players for 16 total skaters, one of the smallest groups Blashill has had.

Blashill will be looking for senior forward Hundersmarck to be at the forefront of the Cardinals’ offensive attack. The last two seniors on the squad are defensemen Connor McAdam and Connor Lee.

The Cardinals had four freshmen who saw significant minutes last year, and even though they’re only sophomores this season Blashill will be counting on them to be major contributors this year.

All of them are big, strong kids.

Sophomore forwards Blake Neibarger (6-foot-1, 185 pounds) and Thomas Crandell (6-2, 190) both did very well last year, and Blashill is looking for them to take a big leap forward this year.

Bringing more experience to the quad are junior twin brothers Ike and Tom Lobert. Ike Lobert is a 6-1, 205-pound forward who’s not shy about mixing it up for position, while Tom Lobert is a 5-8, 205-pound defenseman who is a solid checker.

McAdam is a kid who can play every other shift, according to Blashill, and he’s going to be counted on heavily this year. Although he didn’t see a lot of ice team last year, Tom Lobert is going to be asked to play more this season.

The Cardinals have two sophomore defensmen, Ian Couch (5-9, 150) and Lewis Macdonald (5-9, 180) who’ll be asked to play a lot of minutes early because of their talent and skill level.

Another forward, junior River Spedhowski (5-8, 185), who Blashill calls a natural scorer who had some success last year as a sophomore and will be expected to play a complete game this year.

With the size he has, the Cardinals are hoping Ike Lobert can help them in the front end as well.

Big Rapids has added four sophomores up front in addition to the defensemen.

The coach is especially high on sophomore forward Ben Carroll (5-7, 146) in his first high school season. He joins fellow sophomore Johanthan Spedowske (6-2, 183) up top in the attack zone.

“A lot of these kids are kind of younger, in terms of general age, but I like where we’re at with our size and our strength,” Blashill said. “I don’t know that we’re going to change that much.

“We’re going to have to work harder, probably, to score some goals. But, I think that will come. I think we’re very talented, it’s just a matter of kids kind of getting up to speed. We lost some big time scorers last year.

“That’s tough to replace. But, I like where our guys are at. I like what they did in the offseason in terms of getting stronger, so I think we’ll be similar, but all those kids got bigger. We’re actually a bigger team in general.”

It’s a long season, and the Cardinals don’t look further ahead the next game. Their goal is to improve throughout the season, and be better than the year before.

The Cardinals will need to play some to get up to speed, but Blashill definitely believes the Cardinals have enough talent, size and strength to make another run at playing in the state championship game.

Greg Gielczyk is an award-winning sports columnist and sportwriter who worked a total 36 years — interrupted for an 18-month period from 1997-99 — at the Manistee News Advocate as sports editor until 2006 and is now retired. He currently is a freelance sportswriter for the Ludington Daily News. Gielczyk can be reached at ggielczyk@jackpine.net for story ideas. 

Categories: Hockey