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Birmingham Brother Rice may have lost some big talent from last year, but the Warriors will again be in the hunt for a state title, thanks to (from left) Russell Cicerone, Andrew Roye and Ross Haffey. (The Oakland Press/VAUGHN GURGANIAN)

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HOCKEY: 2012-13 Oakland County preview - Top 10 teams

County teams will have to battle it out for chance to win a state championship

Birmingham Brother Rice coach Lou Schmidt talks to his team during practice Thursday at Oak Park Ice Arena. The Warriors won the Division 2 state title last season, but elected to move up to Division 1 this season. (The Oakland Press/VAUGHN GURGANIAN)

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To get to the top, a team must beat the best along the way, no matter when or where that happens to be. For a handful of Oakland County's best teams, that'll be the case when the state hockey tournament kicks off in late February.

Quite often many teams are faced with tough challenges early on in the tournament. But this year, a handful of the best will be forced to settle the issue right away.

This season, Birmingham Brother Rice was designated to play in the Division 3 state tournament. Instead, coach Lou Schmidt and his Warriors decided to opt up to Division 1, to give his team a chance to face top-notch competition.

"We have quite a few good hockey players at the school and I thought we would be competitive for the foreseeable future," Schmidt said. "Our job is to move these kids on to the next level, like junior hockey. I think there is a perception that Division 1 hockey is the best and we wanted to compete at the best level."

What Schmidt did not know was that when the regional alignments were announced, many of the state's best Division 1 schools were lumped into one regional. Region No. 7 at St. Mary's consists of pre-regions 13 and 14. The host Eaglets welcome in Brother Rice, Farmington Hills Unified and Birmingham Unified in one pre-regional, while Novi Detroit Catholic Central, Northville and South Lyon will compete in the other.

The winners of each pre-regional will face off in the regional final. That's five of the top-seven ranked teams in Division 1, all in one region.

"I didn't think the MHSAA would put all these good teams in one region," said Schmidt, whose team won the Division 2 state championship last year and is ranked No. 1 in Division 1 this season. "We thought all along that we would end up in the Orchard Lake St. Mary's region. Obviously at that point the MHSAA can go in any direction to match teams up in your region.

"Catholic Central has never played Orchard Lake in a region. If anything they would play (that region) in the semifinals or the finals. I won't speculate on why the MHSAA would put the three of us, and not only the three of us, but Farmington Unified, who is a pretty good team as well, together."

Perhaps one big difference this year was that Novi was moved down to Division 2 and a few other teams were shifted around, leaving those teams in the western portion of Oakland County lumped together.

"It really helps your guys focus day in and day out," said Catholic Central coach Todd Johnson, whose team won state titles in 2009-10, but was ousted each of the last two seasons by Novi. "Nothing has really changed. Metro Detroit has a lot of good hockey. I don't sweat it. It is what it is. If you're good and get good bounces you're going to win and if you're not, and you're not prepared, you won't."

Oakland County has perhaps the best hockey in the entire state. There's no questioning that. The real question is how all that talent stacks up against one another. Here's a list of the Top-10 teams in the county.

Click here for capsules on all our hockey teams.

1. Birmingham Brother Rice

Talk about your double whammy. Not only did coach Lou Schmidt lose the best player in the state, Mackenzie MacEachern, to graduation. He lost his next best offensive weapon, Thomas Ebbing, to junior hockey. Both are playing for the Chicago Steel of the USHL.

But don't feel too sorry for the Warriors, who won the Division 2 state title last year. The lineup is filled with talent, much of which is ready to step it up and take on the challenges of playing in the toughest league in the state against perhaps the toughest schedule in the state.

The senior class will lead the way. Ross Haffey totaled 35 points last year and is a co-captain this season. Fellow senior Russell Cicerone, who had 34 points and earned honorable-mention all-state honors last year, is also back. Andrew Roye, who was honorable-mention all-state on defense last year, is a co-captain. He had 30 points from the blue line in 2011-12. Connor Duncan, the team's third captain, is also back on defense. Juniors Blake Bazzi and Bobby Cross returns, as does sophomore Conner Jean, who had 23 points last year. Schmidt is also solid in goal, where junior Jack Bowman (23-4 last year) returns.

"We have a young team with six sophomores and a freshman, so we will rely on our captains, along with the other seniors to lead by example and experience," Schmidt said.

2. Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook-Kingswood

It's not often the Cranes find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to Final Four hockey at Compuware. But that's exactly what happened last spring. Cranbrook fell in the regional final, ending what looked like another promising run toward a state championship.

This year's team is looking to avenge the 2012 squad. Coach Andy Weidenbach has the talent to do just that. Fourteen players return, including 10 seniors, led by captain Alex Alger and assistant captains Jeff Martin and Jeremy Loewenstein.

"In order for this team to have success, we need to have great senior leadership and it all starts with captains," Weidenbach said. "The selection of these three players to fill that role is excellent."

Alger, along with junior Christopher Brown, give the Cranes their two leading scorers from last year's team back in the mix. New this year will be junior defenseman Noah Gilreath and sophomore defenseman Jack Blumberg. Junior Tristan Need, along with sophomores Spencer Applebaum and Austin Movinski, give Weidenbach three solid options in goal.

3. Novi Detroit Catholic Central

While most teams are trying to get their young players up to speed, the Shamrocks are simply trying to fine tune their games and develop depth. Coach Todd Johnson's team consists of 13 seniors this season. That's a lot of veteran leadership to draw from.

"Thirteen seniors, that's a little unusual mix (for the team), but it's kind of the way it shook out," Johnson said. "We're not young - we've got six new forwards in the mix, but I wouldn't consider us young at all."

The Shamrocks' top six forwards are all returning players, led by the high-scoring top line of senior co-captains Charlie Green and Michael Babcock and junior Matt Sorisho. The trio accounted for 15 goals and 30 points in the team's first five games. Johnson also has four returning defensemen in the rotation, led by senior Nick Daigneau and junior Carson Gatt. Daigneau, along with Danny Middleton, are assistant captains for the Shamrocks.

Seniors Derek Moore and Ryan Mulka, who split time in goal last year, are both back to battle for the position in 2012-13. Johnson said both will have a chance to claim the No. 1 position, but he said no decision has been made yet.

4. Orchard Lake St. Mary's

Coach Brian Klanow admits he's got a young team heading into 2012-13. But, like any Eaglet hockey team, it's just a matter of when it'll turn things up and perform like a state contender in Division 1.

Returning for the Eaglets at forward are Cooper Anstett, Deion Mueller, Sean Harrington, Mike Muller and Sam Nardicchio. Anthony Scarsella is back on defense, as is Will Ulrich in goal. There are just four seniors on the roster, while there are 17 juniors, six sophomores and a freshman.

Sophomore Cooper Marody currently leads the team with 11 points in four games. Anstett, Muller and sophomore Nicholas Borellis have nine points each.

"We're a young team that will have to learn fast," said Klanow, who led last year's team to an appearance at Compuware. "I think halfway through we will be very competitive and will challenge for a strong showing in the playoffs."

5. Rochester United

Anytime you return 10 players, including your leading scorer and another all-league top-liner, you've got to like your chances heading into the new season. Rochester United head coach Craig Staskowski has a lot of firepower back from last year's regional semifinalist squad.

He's expecting this year's team to be balanced and able to put the puck in the net. Rochester's leading scorer from last year, senior Brent Boudreau, is back, as is first-team all-league selection, sophomore Marshall Bowery. Also returning is junior Brody Blair in goal. Add in newcomers Michael Pelino and Max Harper, both forwards, and defensemen Lucas Dishinger and Nick Marek and Staskowski has plenty to get excited about. Juniors Evan Asuncion, at forward, and Kyler Patenaude also return, giving the United team the depth it will need to contend in the OAA Red.

"We have our program where we want it as far as being able to compete for the OAA Red championship," Staskowski said. "The goal this year is to make an extended run come playoff time. Being the best team we can by the end of the year is our main goal."

6. Farmington Hills Unified

The Flyers seem to have found a good mix of veteran leadership and youthful talent this season. And so far the returns have been great. The Unified team won four of its first five games. Coach Ken Anderson returns eight players from a year ago, including six seniors.

Reede Burnett (D), Eric Stanis (F), T.J. Zak (F), Eamon Devlin (F), Hunter Myers (G) and Alex Minasian (F) return from a team which finished 15-8-2 last season. Juniors Kyle Witherspoon (F) and Steven Coulter (D) are also back. The team's top newcomers include senior Noah Downs, juniors Matt Golde, Sean Devlin, Jacob Ponder, Adam Fine and sophomores Frank Zak, William Semczak, Austin Bottrel and Nic Demchuk.

7. Birmingham Detroit Country Day

When you're not affiliated with any league or conference, your list of goals may be short. But at Country Day, coach Frank Novock has made the most of his team goals. The Yellowjackets want a state championship.

And who's to say they can't get it? The team returns a pair of top-notch players who were first-team all-state a year ago. Senior forward Sebastian Stankiewicz and junior defenseman Shane Switzer should give Novock an advantage any time they're on the ice this season. And they're not alone. The Yellowjackets return 14 players overall, including junior forwards Zach Bensinger and Jack Bergmann, along with sophomore defenseman Jake Hartje.

8. Farmington

Graduation losses have hit the Falcons hard the past two years. This year's team will be skilled on offense and in goal. Defensively, sixth-year coach Mark Vellucci is hoping his team can continue to get better and better each game out.

Twelve players return from last year's 7-15-3 squad, led by senior forwards Cooper McLean and Nick Gensheimer and defenseman D.J. Rankin. Also returning are junior forward Nick Heffron and goalie John Lethemon. McLean has nine goals and 15 points in the team's first seven games. Heffron and Gensheimer have nine points each.

The Falcons have moved down to Division 3 this year. Vellucci said his goals are to compete in every game, win a league championship and compete for a state championship.

9. Birmingham Unified

Familiarity might be the best thing going for the Birmingham Unified hockey team this season. New head coach John Chateau steps up from the junior varsity squad, having won a pair of league championships in the last five years. That will come in handy for a team that returns just five players from a year ago, including just one, Adam Susalla, that was with the team the whole year.

That being said, Chateau is very familiar with a lot of the incoming talent on this year's varsity roster.

"They know how to win," Chateau said. "Most of us have to adjust to the speed and physical nature of the varsity game."

10. Lake Orion

Last year the Dragons were senior-laden. It paid off with an OAA Red tournament championship and a regional final appearance. This year, coach Nick Field will rely on a large crop of newcomers to get things done. He does, however, have seven returning letterwinners to help acclimate that new talent.

Seniors Kurt Latshaw (F), David Otto (D), Mark Nylen (D), juniors Jordan Stross (D), Don Cathers (D) and Logan Aldrich (G), along with sophomore Ryan Szylowski (F) all return to the mix. Latshaw and Szylowski are threats on offense. Otto, Nylen, Stross and Cathers lead the way defensively. Aldrich will take over for all-state goalie Drew Galasso, who graduated. Field said newcomers Jake Briskey, Marc Kerchner, Connor Moesta and Drew Casey will also be expected to contribute this season.

"Our goal every year is to win the OAA Red regular season and playoff championship, and ultimately the state championship," Field said. "As a coaching staff we demand a lot out of our players in regard to hard work and discipline. We are confident in our group that if we put our best effort forward each night then we will have a chance to accomplish our goals."

Jason Schmitt covers high school hockey for The Oakland Press. Email him at jason.schmitt@oakpress.com, read his "In The Zone" blog here and follow our high school hockey coverage on Twitter @MIPrepZone.

Last Updated: 1/20/2013 9:41:09 PM EST

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