A little over halfway through the season, those questions have been answered in convincing fashion as the Spartans head into Christmas week with an impressive 10-4 start. It’s a start that has caught the attention of opponents in the Mid-States Club Hockey St. Charles Division.
“We’ve actually exceeded our expectations a little bit,” Howell Central coach Chris Wirtel said. “Coming into the season, we didn’t really know what we had, just because we didn’t know who was playing this year, or who was coming back and who had club commitments. Things like that.”
Scoring balance and defense have been the two major components that have driven the Spartans’ success in the first half of the season.
The scoring load has been carried quite well by Howell Central’s potent trio of sophomore forward Benjamin Wuori [16 goals, 13 assists], senior forward Logan Oliver [14 goals, 15 assists], and junior forward Tyler Bradley [10 goals, 7 assists].
Wirtel credits the puck-handling skills of the threesome as a major plus when they have scoring chances on their shifts.
“They move the puck a lot and they are guys that can make plays where they can finish plays,” Wirtel said. “That has helped us out a lot and I’ve been able to spread them out across [scoring] lines, so at least one of them is always playing against the other team’s top lines.”
Defense also has been stout for the Spartans.
Senior defensemen Timmy Schmidt and Fletcher Zieman have been the backbone of the Spartans defense and have provided steady play and leadership.
Juniors Curtis Gonz and Ethan Taplin have been splitting time in goal at the goalie position and the tandem has worked well.
Gonz, who was a roller hockey player that played ice hockey for the first time this season, has developed well with Taplin being unavailable more this season due to club commitments keeping him out of town.
Gonz has six wins in nine starts.
“He’s been fantastic,” Wirtel said. “Curtis had never played ice hockey till this year and he wanted to join the team. And Ethan’s been out of town a lot, so Curtis stepped in and came out with just a lot of fire and has been coachable and works extremely hard.”
Central has seven games left over the next three weeks and, at this point, the Spartans are set up to have a strong second-half finish and be well positioned to excel in the Mid-States playoffs.
“Last year we were just proud to get back up into the Wickenheiser [playoffs] and we wanted to keep climbing this year,” Wirtel said. “Our real goal coming into the season this year was to play well enough to get a higher [Wickenheiser] seed and last in the tournament, go deep and make a run. The way it’s setting up right now, we’ve got to be pretty high up there in those teams, standings-wise. We really like the way we’re showing so far.”