By Ross Forman – The Central Illinois Prep Hockey League (CIPHL) is having one of its best seasons in years, based on the number of players and game competition.
“Two years ago, we employed the play-in format to create better parity,” said Dann Rawls, CIPHL President. “In the past, our high school teams would declare the varsity or JV designation, or were forced to when only fielding one team, (leading to) numerous blow-out games. Many teams would never win a game and lose (games) by double-digits.
“This was starting to influence the number of high school players choosing to participate, and frankly you can understand not wanting to play in a league where the wins and losses are so lopsided.”
The CIPHL had an 8-game seeding round this season that led to teams being split into the top-tiered Gold Division and the Silver Division. There are 4 Gold teams in this high school league: MCYHA, Pekin, Decatur and Suburban. The Silver has five: MCYHA, the Icehawks, Notre Dame, Decatur and Suburban.
The Pekin Dragons are now leading the Gold with a 4-0 record, followed by the Decatur Flames (2-1).The Suburban JV is leading in Silver with a 2-0-1 mark.
“Moving to the play-in and Gold/Silver Divisions has created very competitive games (every) week,” Rawls said of the high school co-ed league. “We do not have the numbers to support a girls’ high school league, unfortunately. I believe there are four (or) five girls (playing in) the league.
“Also, understand the level of commitment some of these players exhibit to just play high school hockey (is great). There are players who drive (90 minutes) to a 9:15 p.m. Thursday night practice. These are players with no other reason to do that other than, they love the game.”
Rawls, 54, who lives in Dunlap, also is the head coach for the Gold Division’s Suburban Northstars, a co-op high school team with players attending Limestone, Dunlap, IVC, Macomb, Illini Bluffs, Farmington, Richwoods, Peoria Heights, Princeton, Canton, Elmwood, and Bureau Valley.
Tim Lester is the coach of Suburban’s Silver Division team.
“Both (Suburban) teams (are) competing well, but what continues to impress me is the level of teamwork,” Rawls said. “This is not just ordinary teamwork, but with so many high schools represented over such a large area, we have varying (skill) levels of players – from travel hockey players to beginners. They have coalesced into a team where the stronger players support and encourage the weaker players.”
Rawls’ Suburban Gold Division team started the 2020 slate of its season with a 1-3 record. Collin Craig leads the team with 4 goals in 4 games, including a 2-goal game Dec. 15 against Decatur. Senior captain Presley Spratt (Dunlap) has 3 goals, 3 assists in 4 games. Senior goalie Nic Lubben (Richwoods) has faced 100 shots in 4 Gold games.
“Both (Suburban) teams have won tough games and lost tough games, but (both) continue to believe in the team concept of competing,” Rawls said.
Key players for the Suburban Silver team include junior defenseman Eli Stevenson (Elmwood) and junior forward Landen Ludolph (IVC).
Senior Matt Bianchi (Dunlap) is a stay-at-home style defenseman for Gold who is “vital to (our) team’s success,” Rawls said.
Spratt is an elusive forward with amazing puck control skills and vision. He is key to the team’s power-play.
“The CIPHL Playoffs will be up for grabs in both high school divisions as there is no clear favorite,” Rawls said. “The Pekin Dragons are starting strong and a case can be made that they are the favorite in the Gold Division.
“An example of the Gold/Silver format being successful is last year’s playoffs. Both divisions needed all games in the double-elimination format to decide the champions.”
Forward Josh Hillman of the Pekin Dragons leads Gold with 3 goals, 7 assists in 4 games.
Blaine Campbell (Pekin), Brendan Taylor (Decatur) and Jonny Blanchard (Pekin) each have 5 goals in Gold play.
“The Gold Division certainly looks very close, very competitive,” Rawls said. “The four teams in the Gold Division are essentially toss-up games. When you are dealing with non-school affiliated rural hockey, every game is an adventure because players sometimes have other commitments that take precedent, so anyone can beat anyone. This is how rural hockey is defined in my opinion.
“The Silver Division teams are toss-up games as well. This helps the league in not only retaining players, but from a marketing standpoint for recruiting purposes. Beginning/less skilled players see that they can play high school hockey in an organized, safe, and competitive environment.”
Ross Forman has written about Illinois high school hockey for more than 15 years and is the only sportswriter to have covered Illinois High School hockey every year during that stretch. He played locally and then at Indiana University before becoming a referee. Ross was a referee for the State Championship game several years ago at the United Center. Contact Ross by email at Rossco814@aol.com.