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Spartans ready to open season under new coach

As a former player and assistant coach for the Southern Oregon Spartans, Denis Creighton knew several adjustments were needed in order to mold the team into his image.

Now entering his first season as head coach, Creighton is about to find out how those changes will take shape on the ice.

The Spartans, a Tier II Junior A hockey team, drop the puck on a new season at 7:30 p.m. Friday, when they host the Lake Tahoe Icemen at The RRRink. The two teams will square off at the same venue at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Sunday.

“If I told you I wasn’t nervous, I’d be lying,” said Creighton, at 23-years-old an atypically young semiprofessional coach.

Last season, Southern Oregon finished 33-15, good for second place in the Northwest Division of the Western States Hockey League, and was defeated in the opening round of the Thorne Cup playoffs.

Dissatisfied with the team’s style of play and makeup, Creighton brought in 16 new players to complement the five returners.

“Last year year we had a very skilled and a very fast team, but we kinda got pushed around a lot,” Creighton said. “We’re way better-rounded and stronger this year, for sure.”

Another area in which Creighton hopes to see improvement is depth. Last season, the team consistently relied on the same two or three players to create most of the action, allowing opponents to narrow their strategic focus.

Specifically, Creighton wants four strong lines that can all put up points and throw hits or execute whatever type of play he needs.

“I’m pretty excited I can finally get the team I want in here and put in the systems I want,” he said.

The majority of the new players on the roster bring with them high-end professional experience.

Among the fresh faces are a pair of rugged defensemen from Europe, Jakub Mecir of Czech Republic and Tom Kuebler of Germany, both over 6-foot and around 200 pounds, expected to help provide the physicality that has been lacking.

Also new to Southern Oregon are a pair of Canadian forwards, Christian Ward of Ontario and Kalem Nohnychuk of Alberta, both highly skilled offensively and expected to help in the zone.

Among the returners, Canadian defenseman Keegan Randell of Saskatchewan was named team captain this year. Randell has shown massive improvement after working hard over the summer to develop.

Another familiar face to watch is forward Matej Valicek of Czech Republic, whom Creighton characterized as an underused player, one who fits well with the model of speed, physicality and work ethic sought by the organization.

It’s been a busy offseason for the Spartans, who, after promoting Creighton to head coach, brought in former NHL defenseman Lawrence Sacharuk as assistant coach/consultant for the program. Sacharuk, 64, has greatly helped Creighton in the recruiting process.

“I think we’re definitely taking a step in the right direction when it comes to that,” Creighton said.

Time will tell if the new recruits live up to their billing and are able to push the Spartans to the head of the division and ultimately win the league, which is expected to come down to the same few teams as usual — among them, the Spartans, the Idaho IceCats and the West Sound Warriors of Washington, Creighton said.

For more information on the Spartans, go to www.sospartans.com.

Reach reporter Mike Oxendine at 541-776-4499 or moxendine@mailtribune.com