Last year, the local junior hockey team won eight games, doubling its combined total from its first two years of existence.

Last year, the local junior hockey team won eight games, doubling its combined total from its first two years of existence.

This year, the Southern Oregon Spartans expect the improvement to continue.

The Spartans, who were renamed in February when new ownership took over, begin play this evening with a road trip to league powerhouse Seattle. The Totems have won the Pacific Division the three years since Southern Oregon — which previously was known as the Rogue Valley Wranglers — was formed in 2007.

The Spartans open their home schedule Oct. 2, also against Seattle.

Southern Oregon is counting on a crop of veteran returners and an influx of players gleaned from an aggressive recruiting campaign to turn around its fortunes.

"Last year we had a lot of kids with a lot of heart and little experience," says second-year coach Steve Chelios, who is the brother of former NHL star Chris Chelios. "They gave us everything they could every time out, but we couldn't do the things you're able to do when you've got the right numbers to bring the competition level up."

This year, Chelios and Co. have more talent throughout the ranks than the franchise has seen.

"Now we're going to raise the bar," he says. "Our expectations are not compared to what we did last year but what we're going to do now."

The Spartans, who have players up to the age of 20, are in the Northern Pacific Hockey League and have Junior A Tier III status.

The team was purchased by Troy Irving and Forest Sexton and renamed early this year. The local businessmen each have kids who are among the returnees from last season's 8-40 team. The squad was 3-45 and 1-47 the first two seasons.

Four of the top six scorers from 2009-10 are back, including forward Mike Feagan, whose 68 points led the team and tied for 10th in the league. Feagan had 32 goals and 36 assists in 45 games.

He is a co-captain along with forward Saylor Preston, one of the newcomers.

The Spartans scouted more than 500 players at more than a dozen tournaments and camp showcases from the middle of January through June. They traveled as far away as Massachusetts, Illinois and Canada.

"Every single kid we have that wasn't here last year is directly from that recruitment," says Chelios. "This is pretty much the fruits of that."

Preston, from Winnipeg, Manitoba, is 6-foot-2, 180 pounds and is expected to take some of the offensive pressure off Feagan.

"He's a big, tough kid that has good hands and can play the game," says Chelios. "He'll provide a little help to Mike Feagan in the leadership role. We didn't have a lot of veteran support last year."

Also back are No. 3 scorer Dane Irving, a defenseman from Medford, No. 4 scorer Chris Whitten, of Vacaville, Calif., and No. 6 scorer Casey Skolnik, of Ashland.

Irving tallied 17 goals and 22 assists for 39 points. Forwards Whitten and Skolnik had 28 and 18 points, respectively.

"We have guys who can come up with big goals and help win big games for us so we don't just have to rely on Feagan for the offense, which is pretty much what we did last year," says Chelios.

Irving is a co-captain, along with defenseman Greg Evans, of Oak Grove, and forward Vance Bridgman, of North Pole, Alaska.

Goalie David Lamb, who played in 30 games last year and logged the most minutes in the net, also returns.

Other local players are Jake Sexton and Zack Macdonald, both from Medford, and Ashland's Trevor Perry.

Steven McCormack, last season's second-leading scorer with 54 points, is playing for Southern New Hampshire University, an NCAA Division III school.

Chelios isn't prepared to use a number — in terms of victories — to gauge Southern Oregon's improvement.

"When you haven't won, you can't give a solid number of how many games you're going to win," he says. "You don't have any credibility if you're a losing organization. You don't prove it by talking about it, you prove it by going out and winning."

He's seen some teams in the league through exhibition-game videos. The Spartans didn't play any, he says, in part because of travel costs and in part because other teams are wary of Southern Oregon.

"They know how much we recruited and all the numbers we have in here," he says.

The Spartans face a Seattle team tonight and Saturday that has played two games already. The Totems defeated River City of Vancouver, Wash., twice by a combined score of 19-5.

"It's a tough first weekend for us," says Chelios, "but that's what we want. We want to be tested by the best team in our division."

Season tickets are on sale. To order them, call 541-282-8430 or visit the team's website at www.sospartans.com.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or e-mail ttrower@mailtribune.com