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Spartans face new challenges

The Southern Oregon Spartans hockey team, once known as the Rogue Valley Wranglers, toiled through several agonizing seasons in its infancy.

But the team kept plugging away, fostered a winning culture and eventually became a powerhouse with new ownership and personnel.

And after conquering all that there was to conquer in their former league, the Northern Pacific Hockey League, the Spartans are moving on up. Southern Oregon, last year's league champion, joined the more-competitive 22-team Western States Hockey League during the offseason as it loaded up on talent worthy of the heightened challenge.

The WSHL is an Amateur Athletic Union-sanctioned junior A league that has teams located in the Southwest and Western United States.

"The main reason for the jump is more parity and tougher competition night in and night out," head coach Mike Stanaway said.

The Spartans sport a lineup of about 25, including eight standout returners. Most of the remaining roster was filled out at Southern Oregon's tryout camp in Madison, Wis., in June.

The newest brand will be on display in the Spartans' home opener against the Seattle Totems at 7:35 tonight. The Spartans play at The RRRink (1349 Center Drive) in Medford.

The change in leagues is a significant one for the franchise and fans alike, symbolizing a major step up for a squad that went 0-3 in pool play in its first appearance in the 12-team USA Hockey Tier III Junior National Championships in April.

Though most of 2011's roster came from hockey-heavy regions of America, the lesson learned at the national event was that there was still room for improvement.

Last year, the Spartans finished with a 40-12 record. They've improved drastically since the dark days when they were known as the Wranglers. Those teams claimed just a handful of wins in a stretch of forgettable seasons.

Southern Oregon now appears to have an arsenal tough enough to hang with the best, with a defense that Stanaway calls "vastly improved" and significant depth at the forward position.

The Spartans' returners include star forward Tim Talty, along with fellow forwards Scott Dunham, Nick Stermel, Tyler Dunn and Anthony Golio.

On defense, Alex O'Leary, Nick DeSimone and Connor Quinn are back.

Talty was the league's player of the year last season. Entering nationals, he owned a team-best 83 points (50 assists and 33 goals).

Golio joined Southern Oregon for only two regular season games and the Cascade Cup playoffs last year. Before that, he had scored 22 points in 20 games with the Lake Erie Warriors.

New additions include forward Robby Gervino, who scored 35 points in 35 games for the Great Lakes League champion Chicago Bulldogs. Drew Jarvis had 41 goals and 72 points for the St. Louis Frontenacs in the same league as Gervino, and he also joins the Spartans along with Taylor McConnell from the Indianapolis Inferno.

Matt Raimandi proved his worth as a defenseman for the Minnesota Junior League's Dells Ducks, while Steve Kreusch is a former MVP of the Chicago Prep Hockey League. Ryan Devine, from Philadelphia, Tommy Bennett from Chicago and Michigan native Mike Kowicki are also standout defensemen.

Former Totem Sean Buckley and Max Richter of Indianapolis are the goalkeepers.

The Totems, Southern Oregon's archenemy in the NORPAC, also made the switch to the WSHL. Seattle shares the Pacific Division with the Spartans, Idaho Junior Steelheads, Ogden Mustangs and Salt Lake City Moose.

The Steelheads captured the league championship last year.

The other teams that joined the league during the offseason were the Bay Area Seals, Ontario Avalanche, Tulsa Jr. Oilers and Wichita Jr. Thunder.

Each squad will play 46 games, 21 of which will be played on home ice, 21 on the road and four at the Western States Shootout All-League Showcase in Las Vegas, Nev.

The change in schedule should be a treat for fans, Stanaway said.

"I think especially for fans to see new teams coming in, strong teams, the games are going to be a lot tougher night in and night out," he said.

The Totems and Southern Oregon play again at 7:35 p.m. on Saturday. The two split a two-game series in Seattle earlier to start the season.

"We are looking to improve every day and build upon last year's success," Stanaway said.

Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email djones@mailtribune.com

Southern Oregon Spartans players practice on Thursday at The RRRink. - Julia Moore