After a dominant regular season, the Cherokee will now compete in the USPHL Premier Division National Championships in Virginia.
TOLEDO, Ohio – In a year without a Toledo Walleye, the Cherokee are causing a stir on the ice in northwest Ohio.
The Glass City junior ice hockey team checked into a Virginia hotel on Wednesday night.
But it’s not for a vacation.
“We started the season with high expectations and just want to live up to them,” said center Zeth Stelmaszak, who is now in his sophomore year with the Cherokee.
During the 2020 playoffs, Stelmaszak was good for 7 points in 4 games. The Cherokee were ousted when the Pittsburgh Vengeance swept them in the second round just before the playoffs were canceled due to the pandemic.
This year, the Cherokee has earned a reunion in the first round and blown the brooms in the second round to return the favor and sweep the vengeance in a best of three. The Cherokee scored 10 goals in 2 games to stamp their ticket to the national championships.
They limited the revenge to a total of 2 goals.
“During the Christmas break, we took a few steps and tricked some new people and started practicing with them, and I feel like we knew it was real then,” said Stelmaszak.
“The guys just started getting involved with what we were doing and it was special for most of the year, but it has been safe since Christmas,” agreed head coach Kenny Miller.
What makes this team so special?
You could say it’s a perfect storm of talent that started brewing right here in Toledo.
The team is packed with local players like David Crandall from Northview High School.
Crandall started the year with the Cherokee before returning to Northview to end his senior season. Crandall was a large part of the Wildcats playoff run, which was canceled by eventual national champions St. Francis.
“These guys are so welcoming and it’s a new team since I left, but I love these guys,” said Crandall. “Just work hard and always get each other’s backs and be so warm.”
He finished the regular season with 17 points and a whopping 57 penalty minutes in 14 games before temporarily switching from a Cherokee jersey to a Wildcats jersey in November.
“He’s a really good boy and we were sad to see him go, but we knew he was going to go and play his senior year,” said Miller. “And it’s great for us to get him back before the second round of the playoffs. And he fits everyone in this locker room and he’s definitely a differentiator out there and he was great for us. He had it.” Four templates in two games. He’s definitely the type to be counted on when we get down there this week. “
But it’s not just Crandall.
This team thrives on players who have grown within the system. Several players spent time on youth teams under the Toledo Cherokee program before joining the USPHL Premier team.
Some are from northwest Ohio, such as Kyle Kucway, Jake Ruehle, and Seth Orozco from Sylvania. Caleb Williams is from Genoa, Matt Snyder from Waterville and Captain Bryce Davis from Elmore.
Timmy Organ Jr. and others played for St. Francis. Even if they didn’t grow up in the Cherokee system, many of them aren’t too far from home.
When they’re not from Ohio, a lot of the boys are from the mitten state. Stelmaszak is from Temperance. And you will see many names on the list who are Trenton High School graduates. It is not a coincidence. Trenton High is a powerhouse school of hockey in Michigan.
The Cherokee are stopped by a goalkeeper who won multiple awards and was a top player in Michigan high school hockey during his college career in Trenton.
Joey Cormier may not be the greatest on the net, but he’s making up for it. His piece might remind you of a certain local fan favorite, Toledo Walleye goalkeeper Jeff Lerg.
Cormier’s stats are also standout in 14th place in the USPHL Premier regular season with a safe percentage of 0.925. And he’s just a newbie.
Some of the boys a little further from home are goalkeeper Christopher Strasen from Bremerhaven and striker Ondrej Dupal from Liberec, Czech Republic.
Marcello de Antunano, who started the season with the Cherokee and recently returned, is from Texas. de Antunano is a goalkeeper for the Mexico junior team and takes part in three Division 3 Junior World Championships. two with the U18 and one with the U20 team.
He too had a phenomenal record online for the Cherokee during the regular season.
The Cherokee have a strong goal, but their skaters are also known for spending a lot of time in the box, with 1,043 minutes in 44 regular season games, the sixth most in the league out of a total of 62 teams.
But it’s this graininess and physicality that help the Cherokee thrive. While they can play a game of finesse, they also throw for their teammates.
Brendan Higgins leads the team with 120 penalty minutes in 34 regular season games. In his career as USPHL Premier he has averaged a little less than one point per game and more than twice as many penalty minutes per game.
Outside of the penalty minutes and the goalkeeping game, they have speed. Even if the team isn’t the biggest, they’re definitely quick. In his third year with the Cherokee, Bailey Byrd scored the top 60 points of his career and his team this season.
In almost every game you can count on outliers from Dupal (2nd in the ranking, 47 in 42 games), Stelmaszak (3rd in the ranking, 45 points in 42 games) and Drew Welsch (5th in the ranking, 35 points in 27 games).
Even defender Organ has wheels and is fourth in the ranking. He’s just one of several players college scouts likely have their eye on a team whose players are currently between the ages of 18 and 21.
Eight players, including Organ, Welsch and Higgins, will be eliminated from the USPHL after this season. This will be her last shot in a junior-level championship.
Many of these people are sticking together for the next step, and several past and present are signing up to NCAA Division III Trine University. It’s not uncommon for Cherokee players to reach college level after their years here in Toledo.
But right now? The focus is on Hampton Roads, Virginia.
“It’s wonderful. I know we haven’t been there in a while. So it’s great to represent the Toledo region and take part in the national championship,” said Crandall.
670 miles from Toledo, the Cherokee checked into a hotel to plan a longer stay.
“Hopefully we’ll do the job,” said Crandall. “And I know we made the team do it this year.”
The Toledo Cherokee will play their first game of the USPHL Premier Finals against the Minnesota Moose on Thursday at 3:50 p.m.