LOUISVILLE — Out of all the Monarch hockey team's five straight state title game appearances over the past five years, last season was the one the Coyotes' least expected to win it all.
The year before, the Coyotes graduated 17 seniors and figured the winter of 2016-17 would be the first rebuilding campaign in recent memory for a team that doesn't ever seem to have to rebuild. But after enduring and uncharacteristic number of highs and lows, the Coyotes finally broke their streak of four consecutive runner-up finishes and defeated top-ranked Regis Jesuit in the championship game to claim the trophy.
This season, the defending-champion Coyotes have 15 players coming back from last winter's miraculous run. So preseason expectations are once again as high as ever.
"I feel like we have a really good vibe," senior center Connor Akerson said. "We're all excited but we're also very serious because we do want to go back-to-back. Having a lot of guys that have played on the team for a few years now coming back gives us a lot of experience and leadership."
Entering the season ranked No. 1 in the CHSAANow.com preseason poll, Akerson and the Coyotes are optimistic early on. Opening the season at home on Wednesday, the Coyotes defeated Battle Mountain, 12-0. Outshooting their opponents to the tune of 35 shots on goal to five, 10 different Coyotes found the back of the net to start the season.
"Our strengths are our puck movement and our speed," Akerson said. "Even though we're a physical team, we are a little bit undersized. We don't have a bunch of ginormous guys, but we think we can make up for that with our skill and our toughness."
While they do return plenty of experienced players, the Coyotes did graduate the program's all-time leading scorer in Brendan They also lost the offensively-talented Sal Pisciola, who assisted on both of the Coyotes' goals in last year's state championship game, so there's a significant amount of scoring to be made up for. It will fall on the shoulders of returning scorers like Leo Felt, Mitchell Ganem and Michael Sandoval to pick up the slack.
The Coyotes' also lost state championship game goalie Logan Gorbitz, who made 26 saves in the 2016-17 title game but will play AAA hockey for the Roughriders out of Stapleton this season. With returning starter Yuta Young back to anchor the defense, the Coyotes do return their top two pairs at the back this season with Reese Kelly looking like a solid goalie.
"We have very high expectations, for sure," Young said. "We all know what we're capable of and we know what it takes to win. The goal is definitely to defend our state title and we're all holding each other to a high standard."
The early standard is high for the Coyotes, but it also remains high for perennial title contenders like Valor Christian and Regis Jesuit yet again. The Coyotes know it won't be easy to repeat as state champions. Early indications, however, have them feeling as confident as ever with that goal in mind entering 2017-18.