It’s a testament to the strength of the Eau Claire Memorial hockey program that a so-called “down year” included a Big Rivers Conference championship.

Still, there was good reason for the Old Abes to leave last season frustrated. An upset at the hands of Hayward in the sectional semifinal halted the school’s nine-year run of making the state tournament in Madison and kept Memorial out of the sectional title game for the first time since 2004.

“Obviously we did a couple things that bit us in the butt against Hayward,” Memorial coach Chris Tok said. “But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Even in the midst of disappointment, there was an understanding that 2018-19 wasn’t for naught. The Old Abes were ironically young, and Tok stressed the importance of learning from experience throughout the season. Memorial wasn’t exempt from losing skilled players – notably gone are defensemen Gunnar Leary and Kaden Kohlhepp – but only graduated six seniors from last year and return a squad with plenty of experience both on the ice and with each other.

It’s a big reason Memorial will once again be a contender in the Big Rivers, and perhaps the favorite to finish on top yet again.

“We were close last year, but I think this team is so tight knit,” forward Joe Kelly said. “We have a ton of skill and just a tight group, so I have a good feeling about this year.”

Kelly is one of three of All-Big Rivers selections returning from last season, including Max Savoloja, a first-teamer and Big Rivers Player of the Year candidate this year. Savoloja led the team with 44 points overall and was third in BRC scoring with 29, only trailing Eau Claire North’s Sam Stange and Zach Urdahl.

The second and third-leading scorers are back too, senior Carter Ottum and Kelly, a junior. Manning the pipes is second-team selection Joe Berg, who ranked second in the conference in save percentage as a junior.

“We’re definitely more focused this year,” Savaloja said. “We know what could happen if we really succeed this year. I think it’s more intense all around.”

There are lessons learned – not looking past any opponent among them – while the team has also advanced mentally and physically with age. Tok saw the improvement from his squad in practice even before the Abes kicked off the season on Friday against Wausau West. Some reminders of drills and protocols were necessary, but with a little push everything clicked for the veterans.

“Guys had fun last year and made some big improvements, and I think they even have over the summer,” Tok said. “There are some guys that are decidedly different and a lot of it is just maturity and strength of being able to shoot the puck a little harder, maybe be able to out-muscle a guy for the puck on a 1-on-1.”

The Abes’ two main competitors for the league crown last year, Eau Claire North and Chippewa Falls, both have serious holes to fill after the Huskies lost their two star forwards and the Cardinals their star goalie, Jaden Hoople. Hudson is always a threat, but on paper there’s a probable path for Memorial to get back on track.

The talent is evident, and memories of how last year ended should only serve as added motivation.

“I think it going to push people harder than ever,” Berg said.