Houston again reigns supreme in Division II hockey

Feb. 7—Despite having another dominant season, the Houston high school boys hockey team wasn't able to successfully defend its Division II state title last year after getting upset in the semifinal round by Juneau-Douglas.

The Hawks didn't want to leave a shred of doubt about who the best team was coming into the 2023-24 season. After shutting out reigning state champion Soldotna 7-0 in the state finals this past Saturday, they are now back on top.

"We wanted to prove that last year was a fluke and that we're still the best team," Houston head coach Lane Styers said.

The Hawks dominated the Stars in the title game but took a business-like approach.

"There was no talking crap or anything like that all year long," Styers said. "We were just going to prove to everyone that they got lucky they didn't get to run into us last year."

He commended Soldotna for its grit despite being down multiple goals and enjoyed playing in front of the crowd at Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, which hosted the D-II tournament.

"It is always fun to play in front of (the opposing team's) crowd," Styers said. "They really packed that place and it was nice to be able to shut them up a little bit."

The Hawks campaign of revenge and redemption got off to a rocky start due to issues with health and goaltending which resulted in them losing three of their first seven games and playing to a tie in another.

After overcoming that early adversity they ran the table the rest of the way and capped off their state-leading 18-game winning streak by claiming their second state title in the past three years.

"We just didn't slow down and got better and better," Styers said. "That was the mission and we went in there and took care of business."

Houston had a nice blend of upperclassmen and young talent on this year's team but leaned on a core group of seniors who were key to their success. Chief among them were captains Afanasy Efimov and Brody Richard, who were sophomores on the last team that went all the way.

"Those guys will be missed a ton," Styers said. "They put up big points this year."

Feeling robbed of a chance to potentially double up on titles against the best

In recent years, winning the Division II crown came with a ticket to the pool to receive an at-large bid to the Division I championship tournament the following weekend. This year that option is no longer in effect for the D-II champ.

In May 2023, a motion was passed to no longer have the Division II champions be included in the at-large bid contention in a 6-2 vote by the respective region representatives on ASAA's Board of Directors.

"It's the most disappointing thing that ASAA has ever done to us," Styers said.

He says that there was a particular coach from one of the Cook Inlet Conference schools in Anchorage who was lobbying for the change because it would mean one less spot for his or another Division I team in the state tournament.

"They knew how good we were going to be for years to come," Styers said. "Now it's not really going to be best-on-best. ... I definitely think we could've gone in there and maybe even won the whole thing."

Historically, the Division II champions haven't fared very well once they play against the bigger schools with none every making it to the finals. However, the last time that Houston made it in 2022, the Hawks played a pair of competitive games against Wasilla and Service, losing both games by a single goal 4-3 and 2-1.

The Hawks played eight games against Division I teams during the regular season and went 5-2-1. Both of those losses came in the early portion of the year when they were still working out some kinks but once they hit their stride, the Hawks outscored higher level schools a combined 36-10 from December to the end of the regular season.

"I made my schedule to try to play the toughest teams and tried to get Wasilla extra times and West at least once because we knew that we weren't going to be able to go and we thought those were the best teams," Styers said. "They had room in their schedule and I offered to pay for it."

Houston narrowly lost to Wasilla in mid-November 3-1 and never got a chance to test its mettle against top-seeded West although the Hawks did beat Division I reigning state champion Chugiak 7-1 in their fifth game of the season.

"It's a shame because these guys work so hard to be the best team in the state and just because our school is a little bit smaller, it doesn't mean we shouldn't get to prove we're the best," Styers said.