By Jason Shaner
Coming into the 2002-2003 season there was nowhere to go but up for the Waterloo Black Hawks. Last season Waterloo finished 11th place out of 13 teams in the USHL. The two teams behind them folded and no longer exist. Scott Koberinski was released of his duties prior to the USHL draft this past summer in favor of USHL veteran coach P.K. O’Handley. O’Handley had been on the bench for the Florida Everblades of the ECHL before coming back to the Midwest and one of the top Junior Leagues around.
The Black Hawks had 12 returning players as well as another USHL veteran making 13 vets to start the season. Expectations were varied. From the negative side, some may have thought that bringing back 12 players from a losing team was not improving things, on the other hand, those players had notched a year of quality experience under their belts and were expected to do well. So, 18 games into the season, Waterloo stands 9-8-1 for 19 points and sole possession of 2nd place in the Eastern Division. Coach O’Handley feels the team is right where he expected them to be. “I think we felt we would be .500 or a couple games above so it’s not that far off. We had 9 of 13 games on the road to start the season against some tough opponents. I think we’re right where we want to be” said O’Handley. Having those tough road games out of the way, the team has now begun to hit its stride riding a five game winning streak. During this time, they have outscored their opponents 25-6.
Solid defense, good goaltending and some offensive surprises have been a big part of the teams early season success. “It’s a combination of things. First, the players have bought into the system of play and they have a relentless work effort. Our coaching staff feels we’ll outwork any team in this league” said O’Handley. So far the positives are many and the negatives are few. “Our strong points would be the work ethic, I would say defensively we’ve been pretty good, goaltending has been pretty good but I would rate our forwards a B. Another strong point is the penalty kill” added O’Handley. Currently, the Black Hawks penalty kill ranks 2nd in the league, only percentage points behind River City. O’Handley felt the main weak point is their consistency. “Early on in the season, we played hard and smart and we just let games get away. Time will tell if we can correct that in the future. Playing 60 minutes is a question mark for the staff”.
On offense Waterloo has seen some names it may not have expected to lead the team in scoring. Joe Pavelski (8-4-12), Mike Radja (6-2-8) and Derek Whitmore (3-3-6) to name a few. Pavelski and Radja both have put up hat tricks during the current winning streak and are beginning to bring some attention to themselves in the league. Defensively, rookies Dustin Molle (0-2-2), Matt Maunu (4-5-9) and Reid Cashman (1-10-11) have been welcome surprises. Cashman and Maunu have added punch to an offense that has seen it’s fair share of injuries early on. Jeff Jakaitis (4-4-1, 2.43, .930) and Jordan Parise (5-4. 2.69, .918) have been a solid rotation in between the pipes. “I’m not disappointed in any individual” said O’Handley. “The disappointing thing is that Ross Carlson and Andy Nelson have only played three shifts together, so we haven’t even reached our full potential. It’s been disappointing for the organization not to be able to have these kids healthy to play”. Neil Sheehan has also been out due to injury. Sheehan has been a sparkplug when on the ice for the team.
That’s where things become a little scary for Waterloo’s opponents. Carlson and Nelson came to Waterloo via trade midway through last season and lit up their opponents and were expected to be major impact players this season. Both have dealt with nagging injuries to start the season and are trying to get into prime form. “When we get back to full strength, although it’s a ways away, I think this team can really show some things” said O’Handley. “It’s good for the young guys because they have been thrown into some situations that they wouldn’t have been in if the other players were healthy”. This creates a good situation for the coach when Carlson, Nelson and Sheehan are back to 100%. The fact that the youngsters on the team are producing makes this lineup very difficult to defense from top to bottom.
Although the team is not quite 1/3 of the way through the season, things are looking brighter for the Black Hawks than they have in quite some time. “We’ve talked since day one that team success will breed individual success. That’s the challenge of every junior hockey coach, you want your players to move on but I don’t think you get that without team success. Our guys are believing in each other. But how many times can you look your teammates in the eye and know that you did everything you could do for your team” O’Handley added. “Our ultimate goal is the playoffs”. This goal is certainly appearing as if it will be fulfilled.
Waterloo will look to continue their winning ways this week as the team heads into a key home and away series with the East leading Cedar Rapids RoughRiders on Wednesday and Thursday and then hosts Western Division leading Lincoln Saturday night. The Black Hawks already own home victories over each team and they stole a point from the Stars on the road when Pavelski scored a goal with seconds remaining on the clock. Simply put, this team can play with anyone in this league and as their confidence builds and their veterans return, Waterloo expects to only get better. Although O’Handley appears satisfied with his current team, he conceded that upgrades could always make things better. “We’re always going to try to upgrade the best we can and if that means making a trade somewhere down the road, we’ll do that. I’d like to see another skilled forward and another good defenseman. I’m not convinced that our goaltending is where it needs to be so that we can do what we want to do. So we may look for a goaltender. It’s not personal, I like each one of the kids on this team, but we have an idea of where we want to go and where we need to be”.
Where this team wants to be is on top of the East Division and own home ice advantage in the Clark Cup playoffs where they put the only Olympic sized ice sheet to their benefit with their strong combination of speed and power. If that happens, look out USHL.
Check out more information on the Waterloo Black Hawks at www.WaterlooBlackHawks.com.