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Flyin' high in Little Falls

01/21/2009, 12:24pm CST
By Tim Kolehmainen

No apologies as Little Falls remains unbeaten in Class A

By Tim Kolehmainen, Editor of The BREAKDOWN

Despite leading a team that scores nearly seven goals a game, Little Falls coach Tony Couture has a frightening thought for future opponents of the Flyers.

“I don’t think we shoot enough,” said Couture after his team beat Fergus Falls 9-2 last Saturday, Jan. 17 to remain perfect on the season. “I love to see shots. I consider it the best play in hockey. Shoot the puck on net and good things will happen. We need to do that a little more.”

With another big victory Tuesday night (8-1 over Willmar), the Flyers pushed their record to 13-0-0 and are atop the Class A rankings, yet perhaps controversially so. Many observers aren’t keen on considering the Flyers a potential state championship contender.

First, let’s clear up a few misconceptions about Little Falls.  There is plenty more to the Flyers than St. Cloud State recruit Ben Hanowski.  And despite a schedule that some would kindly consider “not as difficult as it should be,” the Flyers are for real.

“Whether or not we’re No. 1, I don’t know. There’s a lot of good teams out there,” argued Couture, who listed a handful of top Class A teams like St. Thomas Academy, Hermantown and Warroad as having a claim to No. 1. “They all have their mystique, because none of us see too much of each other.”

Scheduling Central

“We are who we are. We play in a conference with a lot of teams that we have to see twice,” admitted Couture. Five or six years ago, several Class AA teams in the Central Lakes Conference decided they were more interested in playing possible section foes than scheduling the lower-tier Class A members, of which Little Falls was one.  The Flyers had struggled for years and years to field a competitive varsity program and often didn’t pose much of a challenge to the big boys. 

Not so anymore, but the conference schedule remains from that time.

“It goes full circle,” said Couture, who has been in Little Falls for 16 years. “I’ve seen just about everything happen. We struggled for a long time, but we’ve gotten some good coaching from guys like Ben’s dad John Hanowski. He’s one that pushed these kids early in PeeWees and Bantams and got them up to Hermantown and down to the Range and down to the Cities and really pushed these kids.”

The Flyers have 18 conference games and also host a four-game Christmas tournament, leaving little opportunity to schedule other top Class A schools.  But to say they’re untested is not accurate.  Couture took the team to the Iron Range in the season’s first week and shut out both Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl and an admittedly down Greenway program. They’ve also played top-shelf Class A teams like St. Cloud Cathedral and Alexandria, and beaten them both. Couture also schedules plenty of early scrimmages against teams like Warroad and Roseau.

The Flyers have now qualified for four straight state tournaments and are favorites to make it five in a row this winter. But they’ve fallen in the first round three times in that span, including the past two.

“I think it’s just little first-game jitters down there,” said senior defenseman Izaak Berglund. “That’s what’s happened in the past.”

A tough draw hasn’t helped, either. In each of the last two seasons, Little Falls has been paired up with the eventual state champion in the quarterfinals (Hermantown in 2007 and St. Thomas Academy last year).

“I think this year could be our year. I think if we could get to the state tournament, we could do some damage,” said Berglund.

The Flyers’ seniors all know this is their last chance at an elusive state title, but the program also isn’t excited about losing a class like this.  Couture expects the varsity/JV roster to drop from 30 kids down to 16 next winter.  Instead of running six lines between the two teams, he may be reduced to eliminating the JV team due to lack of skaters.

“Yeah, we’re unbeaten, but we’ll meet our match,” said Couture.

Senior moments

If they do, it’s likely the senior class that will get them over the hump. Little Falls is dominated by a potent senior class, with goalie Michael Sperl (13-0-0, 1.83 GAA, .922 save percentage), all four regular defensemen and five of the top six forwards all coming from the class of 2009. Only sophomore Adam Dougherty (3-9-12), who moved up from bantams, breaks the seniors’ hold.

“We’ve had a lot of experience together,” said senior forward Wesley Waytashek. “We came up through the ranks of youth hockey together. It makes it a lot easier for us to come out and play and perform at a high level.”

Waytashek (9-11-20) is small in stature, but hustles all over the ice. It’s the formula he’s used to go from being a fourth-liner who didn’t see the ice at state in 2007 to a first-liner and one of the team’s best players as a senior.

“That’s all I can do. I’m not gifted at stick-handling or scoring, but if I work hard it makes up for all that stuff,” said Waytashek.

Hanowski, Waytashek, Ben Nelson (9-16-25) and Riley Hirsch (9-14-23) have split time on the first line, while also making a potent second line along with big Jordan Moll (5-6-11) and Dougherty.  The third line has been in flux, with freshman Joey Hanowski, juniors Tommy Martin, Travis Stoerzinger and Mitch Lundeen and seniors Peter Suska and Josh Nelson seeing time.

“Our top two lines can play with anybody we’ve seen,” said Couture. “And our third line, we’re still trying to find those three kids. We’re trying to be smart with them, play dump and chase. Nothing fancy, just get it out of our zone and that’s what they’ve done for us.”

The Flyers are certainly well known as an offensive powerhouse, but they can play a physical brand of hockey just as easily.  Defensemen Berglund (10-23-33), Logan Kalis (2-14-16), Jordan Gosiak (3-6-9) and Joe Rydeen are hard-nosed, hard-hitting players who won’t back down from any opponent.  As seniors, they’re also very calm with the puck and never seem to panic.

“We have some big guys back there who know how to throw the body around,” said Waytashek.

Big Ben

But the most physically dominant player on the ice is Hanowksi.  With opportunities to move to Junior Hockey on his plate, Big Ben decided to return to Little Falls for his senior season.

“He decided his friends were very important to him and that Little Falls hockey was very important to him,” said Couture. “And I think he has a supporting cast, that if it wasn’t there, he might have changed his mind and went. But it means a lot to our youth hockey program, to see somebody like that. Just the success of our program.”

For a player who is built like a power forward, Hanowski is like a viper out on the ice, slithering into openings and striking with a blur. His damage is done so quickly that it almost seems painless…until a glance at the scoreboard shows the Flyers are winning again.

Hanowski has a shot to become the state’s all-time leading career scorer, surpassing Red Wing’s Johnny Pohl. He’s also just 14 goals shy of tying Corey Carlson for the career goal-scoring title. Twelve games into his senior season, Big Ben has racked up 33 goals and 23 assists for 56 points, pushing his career totals to 330 points on 156 goals and 170 assists).  Already this season, he’s moved from fifth place to second behind Pohl, overtaking such legendary hockey names as Eveleth’s John Mayasich, Greenway’s Gino Guyer and Dave Spehar of Duluth East.

Pohl tallied 378 points in four years on the Red Wing varsity (144 goals and 234 assists) before moving on to the University of Minnesota. Carlson notched 170 career goals with Two Harbors and Greenway in the early 2000s.

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