LOUISVILLE — The Monarch ice hockey team has entered the past four seasons as favorites to win the state championship, and rightfully so.
The Coyotes finished runners-up in the state at the end of each of the last four seasons, going 76-9-5 during that span. With four of nine losses coming in title games, including a triple-overtime thriller against Cherry Creek in 2015 and a loss to Regis Jesuit that prevented a perfect season in 2016, the Monarch program's 76 wins are the third most behind Ralston Valley's 80 and Regis Jesuit's 77 throughout the past four seasons.
But graduating 17 seniors after last school year, during which they won 21 games in the winter season, the Coyotes' current campaign has a different feel. Having been forced to acknowledge their relative weaknesses through the first nine games, the air of superiority that pervaded the Coyotes locker room over that past four years has been replaced with an intrepid desire to get back near the top.
"We lost a lot of seniors last year so I think we were a little down from that at the beginning," Coyotes junior center Connor Akerson said. "But I think the boys are coming on strong and we'll keep getting stronger going into playoffs. We play for the boys more now than we did before and we came a long way from the beginning. We have to prove who we are this year."
The Coyotes won their first two games of the season but received an early wake-up call when they lost to surprising first-year program Fort Collins, a team that has since risen to No. 2 in the CHSAANow.com poll. They rebounded quickly and currently sit at 5-3, with losses to No. 4 Ralston Valley and top-ranked and defending champion Regis Jesuit.
Still, that start-to-finish dominant feel didn't begin to return to the Coyotes until they played a tight game against the defending champs. They lost 4-2 to Regis, with the final goal an empty-netter at the end, but felt like a step in the right direction.
"That Fort Collins game really opened our eyes because we thought we'd just walk through," Akerson said. "If you look at our Regis game, they had two quick power-play goals but we came back to tie it and play them even. We happened to fall on the losing end of that but we're starting to take care of those minor mistakes and get better."
In the most recent rankings, the Coyotes are sixth. Under this season's new alignment, under which Colorado's teams are placed in four tiered eight-team divisions according to teams' historic strength, the Coyotes won't get any easy games while playing in the top-level Foothills Conference.
While it can be more difficult and losing is never fun, especially for teams like the Coyotes who aren't accustomed to defeat, senior right wing Brendan Van Haute said the rest of the season should pose a new an intriguing challenge.
"It's very different from last year," said Van Haute, who leads the team with 17 points. "Not only do we have a lot of new players but we have a different mindset because we're not the team to beat anymore and we have to work really hard to get back to that point. In years past, we've done it with talent and this year we're having to do it with hard work. We've learned that it's a process and it's going to take time. We can do it. But we know we're not going to blow teams out and I think it's a good thing that we have to bring our A-game if we want to win."