Despite a disappointing exit in the semifinals of the Nailers Cup on Feb. 26, Blackhawk's first season under Matt Stuber was a glowing success.
"It was a good season," Stuber said. "It stings to lose, but as I told the players afterward, not everyone can win and advance. Someone has to lose."
The Cougars didn't lose often this season. Including the playoffs, Blackhawk lost just three times and tripled its win total from last season, going from six to 18 wins.
But in the semifinals, the top-seeded Cougars faced a Wheeling Park team that handed them two of the three defeats. No. 4 Wheeling Park jumped out to a 3-0 lead and Blackhawk never got closer than two goals the rest of the way in a 5-2 loss.
Stuber credited Wheeling Park with building its game plan around protecting the team's weakness, goaltending.
"They did a really good job protecting their goaltender," Stuber said. "We had 40- plus shots, but we didn't get any bounces to go our way."
Wheeling Park allowed 12 goals in two regular-season games to Blackhawk, but shut out the Cougars through two periods in the semifinals.
It even stopped the Cougars on a 5-on-3 power play. But the Cougars finally capitalized on another 5-on-3 advantage early in the third period, as senior Daren Braudis scored to make it 3-1.
"Our seniors never got down," Stuber said. "They just said, 'We have to do this and we have to do this.'
"We're going to miss their leadership."
The team will lose top-scorer Braudis, who finished eighth in the Open Class with 66 points, as well as its second- and fourth-leading scorers, Josh McCuean and Nicholas Gray.
But the team will return junior Kyle Schaefer, who finished third on the team with 46 points, as well as freshman Robert Swinderman. Swinderman had 18 points in 13 games in the regular season and added a goal and two assists in the playoffs.
In addition, Stuber is looking for a lot of help from the junior varsity team.
"A lot of them were call-ups during the season," Stuber said. "I think we had seven of them move up during the season, so they'll know what they're getting into at the varsity level."
Another question mark for Blackhawk is what division it will play in next season. There has been talk of the PIHL dissolving the Open Class after this season, but nothing has been finalized yet.
Stuber knows that there will be a place somewhere for the Cougars, but he believes it will still be in the Open division.
"Right now, the talk doesn't affect us," Stuber said. "We'll have a place to play, we just don't know where.
"My thoughts are I think there will be at least one more season. I don't think they can put everything together that fast."
But wherever the Cougars are playing, they'll be building off one of their better seasons in recent history.hsother