Heading into the 2002-2003 the Waterloo Black Hawks head into a new era. Head Coach Scott Koberinski was fired in the offseason in favor of P.K. O’Handley. O’Handley had been on the coaching staff of the Florida Everblades in the ECHL since leaving Mason City, Iowa and the North Iowa Huskies of the USHL a few seasons ago. North Iowa has since moved on to Cedar Rapids, Iowa and have become Waterloo’s biggest rival. The Black Hawks have a not-so-illustrious history as a junior hockey team in the league and O’Handley looks to change that. Since 1996 the Black Hawks have made the playoffs twice and each time they lost in the first round, one of those seasons was to O’Handley’s Huskies. Waterloo normally is fighting to stay out of the cellar of their division and last year was no different. The Black Hawks finished 3rd from last in the standings last season. The two teams that finished worse than them, the Rochester Mustangs and Tulsa Crude, no longer exist. Even after the Black Hawks were awarded the #1 pick in the draft this season, Spencer Dillon, their top selection, chose to go elsewhere rather than stay in Waterloo and be part of a rebuilding process.
However, there is still plenty in the cupboard for Waterloo this season as high expectations are abound. Of course, every season each team has high aspirations of winning it all and being successful but this season Black Hawks fans have some legitimate reasons to be excited. Waterloo will return 13 regulars from last season’s team. Now some may think that if they lost last season, how are they going to be any better? But, as most USHL followers know, experience is what wins in this league. Now this team has the most USHL experience out there. For starters, the Black Hawks may have solved their goaltending problems from a year ago. After Waterloo went through net-minders like kids go through jeans, the Black Hawks appear to have their starter in that of Jeff Jakaitis. Jakaitis, from Rochester, Minnesota came to Waterloo via a mid season trade and played well once his turn came to play regularly. Jakaitis figures to be the starter but junior hockey veteran Jordan Parise should give him a good run for his money or if nothing else, provide a quality backup. Parise’s spot on the roster hasn’t been guaranteed but based on playing time and his performances in preseason tournaments, Parise seems to be the logical choice to backup Jakaitis.
Defensively Waterloo returns a number of players from last year including sparkplug Jim Jensen. Playing regularly as a 17 year for the Hawks last year, Jensen should be a vocal and physical leader on the blueline. Re-joining him this season are up and coming stars Rob Lehtinen and Nathan Fornataro. Fornataro appeared in the preliminary rankings of the Central Scouting Bureau’s last season and figures to possibly hit that list again. Jon Saunders comes by way of the defunct Tulsa Crude and should add another physical presence on the ice. Recently added Slovakian Igor Bobcek should provide solidity to the defensive corps along with newcomers Reid Cashman and the mammoth sized Dustin Molle.
On offense the lineup is littered with returning players. Last season the Black Hawks offense struggled with regularity. One night they would get quality shots and just not be capable of capitalizing and others the offense was simply non-existent. This season should change and should change considerably. Waterloo will have Ross Carlson and Andy Nelson, two solid forwards acquired via trade last season, for a full year and they should produce solid offensive numbers. Also returning is Cole Baron, Baron will be in his third season with Waterloo, both have been cut short by major injuries. After committing to Colorado College for this season, he changed his mind and decided to come to the USHL for hopefully one final, full season. His offensive skills from the left side of the ice should be invaluable. Trevor Stewart also returns after missing almost all of last season due to a shoulder injury. Joel Hanson is perhaps the most anticipated returning forward. Hanson got off to a slow start last season but finished with a flurry and after bulking up over the off-season, he should post high numbers. A continuously developing Mike Dagenais also returns for a 2nd campaign along with pesky Neil Sheehan, Jake Schwan and Marco Trevino for Waterloo. Newcomer Matt Fornataro, Nate’s brother, could provide an additional spark as he’s shown signs of great skill in preseason. Derek Whitmore comes via the Butte Irish of the AWHL and should help with his junior hockey experience. Other newcomers are Mike Radja and Joe Pavelski. Garrett Regan, a high schooler out of Hastings, Minnesota also has a shot at making the team as he has played impressive to date.
All in all, the makings are there for a fine season of hockey at Young Arena. Although the final roster cuts have yet to be made, the team is pretty much set and the possibilities are there. Injuries to Carlson, Nelson and Schwan may slow the team’s break out of the gate but as the team plays together and gels, they could truly become a team to beat at the end of the season. As Black Hawks fans maintain their religious faith to the local team, they deserve a winner, as does the players and staff. The ingredients are there to put the past behind them….let’s see what O’Handley and the Black Hawks whip up.