Southeastern Conference Preview

Saline Continues To Separate Themselves From The Pack

Craig Peterson

October 10, 2023

Photo from Instagram | @salinehockey
Photo from Instagram | @salinehockey

Last week, I talked extensively about how Lakes Valley Conference teams are closing the gap on White Lake Lakeland’s recent dominance. I think the inverse is taking place in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) with the Saline Hornets. Coach Kyle Zagata has been building them up for the past few seasons, and they’ve climbed the ranks of the SEC during that span. They enter this season in the driver’s seat, easily the best team in the conference and returning a wealth of top players. The Hornets have gone from 8-16-1 in ‘19-20 to a 20-win performance last season.

Not only has Saline trended up year-over-year under Zagata, the rest of the conference has crested a bit. Pinckney — a sneaky good team in the conference — co-oped last season with Walled Lake Western, sending the program to the LVC. Both Ann Arbor Pioneer and Ann Arbor Skyline fell on hard times last season, and six of the nine programs in the conference finished at or below .500 in ‘22-23. The cream of the conference really comes down to Saline in the Red Division and Chelsea in the White Division. And, as much as Saline returns to the roster, Chelsea loses some key pieces it’ll have to replace. That paves the way for this winter to come up all Hornets.

Last Season’s Champion: Saline and Chelsea

Saline went 8-0-0 in the White Division and Chelsea went 6-0-0 in the Red Division; a bit of a rarity for both division champs to go undefeated in-conference. Now, head-to-head, the Hornets to last season’s matchup in late December.

For Chelsea, there’s a huge void left in the wake of Jack Roberts and Devin McIntyre, who graduated a combined 146 points from last season. How do you replace the loss of two junior-level prospects? Well, the Bulldogs do return Brandon Davila and Keegan Montgomery, who have played in every game for Chelsea going back to their freshman years. Now entering their senior seasons, both Davila (88) and Montgomery (84) have a chance to reach the 100-point plateau in their high school careers. Plus, my favorite ace up the sleeve, a returning goaltender in junior Luke Webster. He is 18-3-0 in his high school career, now entering the back stretch as a junior

Mateo Iadipaolo and Blake Woodrel should be the best tandem in the conference though, and arguably, one of the top tandems in the entire state. Saline graduated 54 percent of its offense from a season ago, yet return their No. 1 and No. 2 scorers in Iadipaolo and Woodrel. On top of that, Tyler Schroeder is back in net for a third season. Secondary scoring and defense are my concerns for the Hornets, but their starting six in totality will be better than any team in the SEC can produce.

Players To Watch: 

Mateo Iadipaolo, Saline Senior Forward

He sits at 97 career points entering his final season and SEC goaltenders will breathe a sigh of relief when he’s gone. Until then, I expect Iadipaolo to have his way offensively and make a case for being a top forward in the state. 

Blake Woodrel, Saline Senior Forward

Woodrel makes a lot of good things happen offensively and scores in bunches. Sixteen multi-point games last season, and the team is 27-3-2 all-time when he gets on the scoresheet.

Brandon Davila, Chelsea Senior Forward

The 5-foot-7 Davila is a scrappy, skilled skater that brings a ton of high school hockey experience to the table. A huge luxury for Chelsea to have him coming back after graduating two elite talents last spring.

Karsen Kucharski, Ann Arbor Huron Senior Forward

Give this kid his flowers. Kucharski has unfortunately been overshadowed by some elite players who have come through the conference in recent years. Yet, he quietly put up 42 points last season for Huron that had its first winning season eight years.

Graham Newton, Ann Arbor Skyline Senior Defenseman

May be one of the best defensemen in the state. Newton finished in the Top 5 in scoring in the SEC last season, and could be even more dominant in his second year of high school hockey. 

Luke Webster, Chelsea Junior Goalie

Among the best goals-against averages (1.83) and save percentages (92.8) in the state last season as a sophomore. Webster is only going to get better from there, and if Chelsea gets a big year from him, they could continue their dominance in the SEC.

Save The Date: Jan. 13th, Chelsea vs. Saline

A game that means nothing, but also means everything. It’s a matchup of the two best teams in the conference, yet with each being in opposite divisions, the result of the game means relatively little. Regardless, the winner can claim bragging rights as the unofficial SEC conference champion and definitive top team in Washtenaw County. 

Petey’s Prediction: Saline and Chelsea

I don’t know who’s Batman and who’s Robin, but I do know the Hornets will go as far as Iadipaolo and Woodrel take them. They have the potential to be as dominant as Roberts and McIntyre were for Chelsea last season. Saline’s top line is good enough to skate with anyone in the state, and if the group can stay focused and avoid letdowns, they should dominate the SEC Red to win a third consecutive division championship.

Chelsea lost a bunch, but returns a good core as well. I do think the White Division is a bit more challenging than the Red Division, even though it has one less team. Jackson is a tough place to play and a scrappy program in general. Chelsea will have to take them on twice and Saline travels to Jackson this season. I like JU to steal a win in at least one of those three matchups. Plus, Lenawee United has come a long way in the past two seasons. I don’t know that they can upend the Bulldogs but may play them a bit tougher than others in the SEC. I think that makes Chelsea’s path to a division championship just a bit more challenging than their counterparts in Saline. 

Want to talk about it? Let's connect on social: