By Jason Shaner
P.K. O’Handley knows how to coach. He’s proving it by taking the Waterloo Black Hawks, the USHL’s annual basement dwellers and turning them into contenders in only one season. O’Handley’s hard working attitude has rubbed off onto his players and currently the Black Hawks sit alone in 1st place in the Eastern Division. Waterloo is 25-15-1 and the hated Cedar Rapids RoughRiders sit three points behind them with a couple of key matchups coming up between the two teams. Most notably Valentines Day when the ‘Riders pay their final visit to Young Arena with the Iowa Wireless Corridor Cup on the line. Overall the Black Hawks sit tied in 2nd place with the Topeka Scarecrows. The Western Division and overall USHL leader is the Lincoln Stars. Currently they sit at 59 points and, for the time being, appear well on their way to the Anderson Cup for best regular season record.
For Waterloo, they have used balance, hard work and sometimes luck to stay atop the standings. They had fallen upon some brief hard times, losing three in a row, two of them in convincing fashion on the road to Topeka and Lincoln, but have righted the ship this past weekend. The Black Hawks pulled out an overtime victory in River City, completing a 3-0 record against the Lancers in their new barn. Reid Cashman (5-24-29, +23) scored the game winner only seconds into the overtime. The Hawks did fall to the defending league champion Sioux City Musketeers 4-3 on the road Saturday night before overwhelming Green Bay at home Sunday night by a 4-1 count.
Waterloo will host a couple of key games at home this weekend with Sioux City returning Friday and River City coming to town Saturday. Winning the division is the ultimate goal as the home ice advantage will be a major advantage for the Black Hawks. On the season, they are 16-3 at home. They had won 14 games in a row at home before the Musketeers beat them recently. Friday’s game will have pay back written all over it no doubt.
Waterloo is led offensively by the dynamic duo of Ross Carlson (15-19-34) and Andy Nelson (8-21-29). These two have the most uncanny knack to find each other in the open ice and they just might be the most formidable duo in the league. Rookie Joe Pavelski (18-14-32) actually is 2nd on the team in scoring, many gutsy goals coming from him. Mike Radja (13-12-25) and Matt Fornataro (10-15-25) also are at the top on the team in scoring. With the exception of Carlson and Nelson, most of the leaders in scoring are newcomers to the Black Hawks. Derek Whitmore (12-9-21) is a Junior Hockey veteran, playing for the Butte Irish of the AWHL last season, has made a huge impact on the squad as well. Recently Fornataro and Pavelski were voted onto the USHL All-Stars teams. It left some scratching their heads, as although the two deserved the nomination, players such as Rosco and Nelly may have been more deserving of the honor. Nonetheless, the Black Hawks will use that as motivation to pummel their opposition the remainder of the season.
On defense, more newcomers are starring. The aforementioned Cashman, leads the league with a +23 and also has an astonishing 29 points. Jon Saunders (0-3-3, +3) has come to the Black Hawks from the defunct Tulsa Crude and become a major force as has 16 year old super stud Dustin Molle (1-5-6, +8). Molle is 2nd on the team in biggest hits this season, that honor goes to the reigning champion and defensive leader, Jim Jensen (1-13-14, +8). Jensen has electrified the crowd non-stop this season.
Goaltending has truly been the only glaring weakness for this team. Jordan Parise (13-8, .917, 2.62) appears to hold the #1 spot currently, but Jeff Jakaitis (12-7-1, .911, 2.85) doesn’t appear to be too far behind. Both goaltenders have played well this season, Parise with two shutouts and Jakaitis with one. However, in the USHL playoffs, as in hockey anywhere, goaltending is the cornerstone to championships. Of late, the two have been allowing a little more GAA than usual. They will definitely have to take their games to another level to lead Waterloo to the Anderson and Clark Cups. Neither of those titles have landed in Waterloo in the 20 plus years of Junior Hockey….never. That’s a trend O’Handley appears to be intent on changing. With the kind of class act he’s been portraying since his arrival, and having the players 100% full attention, he just might do it.