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Boys hockey preview: Expectations high, schedule tough for CEC

Cloquet-Esko-Carlton's Kade Bender shoots the puck while being defended by Eden Prairie's Tommy Hartle during a game in November 2017. Bender is a tri-captain this season. Pine Journal file1 / 2
Cloquet-Esko-Carlton goaltender Owen Carlson (30) steps out of the goal to control the puck during a game against Duluth East in December. Carlson, a junior, returns as goaltender this season. Pine Journal file2 / 2

Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys hockey coach Shea Walters is walking into a pretty good situation.

He inherits a team with a dozen seniors, good talent, drive, desire and something to prove.

Not bad for a first team.

Walters, who took over the team this summer from former coach Kevin Smalley, has one of the deepest Lumberjacks teams in years heading into their opener Friday, Nov. 23, against defending Section 1AA champion Lakeville North.

The only problem is that everyone knows it.

"This is a team that expects to win every game it plays," Walters said. "That means they are competitive in everything from games to drills at practice. They push each other and they expect a lot from each other."

The Lumberjacks finished 17-8-1 a year ago and return the core of that team this winter.

Senior Landon Langenbrunner (23-22-45) is one of the tri-captains this season along with Kade Bender (8-6-14) and Gavin Rasmussen (14-12-26).

We're deep at a lot of positions and have good skill," Walters said. "We're looking forward to a good season."

The team is set in goal with junior Owen Carlson (15-7-1, 2.52, .894) returning between the pipes after a spectacular sophomore season.

Carlson's fine play, plus a stronger defensive corps, will allow Walters to do something a bit different from Smalley in terms of coaching philosophy.

"I want us to be wide-open on offense because we have the skill to do it," he said. "We have to be solid from the goal outward, but this is a deep team that should be able to put other teams under pressure."

Walters is the program's third head coach in three seasons, and notes that taking over from his longtime compatriot Smalley has had its moments.

"Kevin and I still talk often, almost every day," Walters said. "We're still close. But players understand coaching changes. These kids have gotten a lot of great advice from a number of coaches through the years."

In terms of assistants, Walters has brought in former Virginia High School and UMD standout Scott Kishel to work with the defensemen, with Erik Hanson assisting. Former CEC standout Adam Pavlatos returns to work with the goaltenders.

"It's important to have good assistants who can work with the kids and I think we have that," Walters said.

And in a section that is once again expected to be tough, fierce and led by rivals Duluth East and Grand Rapids, Walters knows his team is in for a season-long scrap.

"Playing a Class AA schedule will be good for them," Walters said. "I think that brings about its own pressures, but no pressure will be greater than those these players put on themselves."

That schedule borders on murderous. In addition to Lakeville North, CEC is also scheduled against defending state champion Minnetonka (27-2-2); White Bear Lake (22-4-2 last year), which is bringing through a state championship bantam class; Eastview (23-5-0 last season); and Elk River (19-8-0) — all before Christmas. Add in two games each against Duluth East and Grand Rapids, and you get the idea.

"It'll be interesting," Walters said. "But we're ready for it."