Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in November’s issue of Buckshot the Magazine

Sam Stange didn’t have to return to Eau Claire North for his senior season. In fact, his coach, Ryan Parker, was pleasantly surprised he did.

Stange had a clear path to the United States Hockey League, the top junior circuit in the country, after a stellar 2018 campaign which included a school record 39 goals, a Big Rivers-leading 59 points and Leader-Telegram player of the year honors.

He even got a taste of the competition he’d face early in North’s season, suiting up for two games with the USHL’s Sioux City Musketeers.

No one would blame him if he left for greener pastures, but Stange said exiting now would make his high school career feel incomplete. The Huskies have made great strides since Parker took over, earning two trips to the sectional finals in the past three years, but are still eyeing that elusive first trip to state since 2006.

“We talked about it, but at the end of the day the goal was to get back down to Madison,” Stange said of the USHL route. “To be able to finish what we had a part in starting, that was the goal.”

Parker, entering his fifth season as North’s head coach, said there was no question Sioux City wanted Stange to make the leap this season. He wouldn’t have gotten in the way of a move, either.

“You never want to lose a really good athlete, but at the same token we’re here for one reason and that’s to develop these guys and help them get to their dream,” said Parker, who also played at North.

Stange didn’t have to worry about jumping to a higher level to get noticed. He’s been recruited at an elite level, culminating in his verbal commitment to the University of Wisconsin in early September. He’s in line to become the first North player to join the Division I ranks since Derrick LaPoint shuffled off to North Dakota in 2007.

Since he already knows his next step, the decision came down to his development as a player.

The USHL offers tremendous competition, boasting over 250 alums in the NHL, according to the league website and 67 current players on the NHL Central Scouting players to watch list, the most of any junior league in the world.

At North, there was a guarantee Stange would have a high usage rate and compete against one of the toughest schedules in the state. He wouldn’t be abandoning facing top competition either, as he’ll suit up for Team Wisconsin of the Upper Midwest High School Elite Hockey League following the conclusion of the Huskies’ postseason run.

“The opportunity is pretty good for him,” Parker said. “He gets to come out and be a leader on our team, be on the powerplay. All that type of stuff can help him keep growing. If you go to junior hockey, I don’t know where you end up. First, second, third line.”

Stange consulted a handful of former players, including coaches, who had gone through this process for advice before eventually settling on a return to North, much to the chagrin of Big Rivers Conference goalies that must face him this season.

With how well Stange played as a junior, it’s hard to believe there’s another gear. He ran away with the Big Rivers points race, finishing 13 ahead of second place.

Parker, who has worked with former Division I players like LaPoint and current Buffalo Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe, said Stange has all the tools you’d expect from a player strong enough to compete in the Big Ten.

“He’s got size, speed and strength,” Parker said. “He’s got a great shot, great vision for the ice. … He’s the complete package. Got work ethic. Got desire. Good teammate.”

He’s also a big reason why North enters the 2019 season with an added swagger.

After three straight seasons of 16 or more wins, the Huskies know they belong in the conversation of state contenders in a section that has been dominated by Memorial the past nine years.

“With the results we’ve had in the past few years against them, getting a win against them a few years ago, I think that was the biggest part,” Stange said. “We realized we could compete. They’re just another team that we have to compete against. … I think that’s made a huge difference in where we see ourselves.”

Other area teams

Memorial

Coach: Chris Tok

2017-18 record: 20-2-2

Ironically, the Old Abes are rather young, especially after Brenden Olson opted to the United States Hockey League.

Junior Max Savaloja has made up for some of the team’s lost production, totaling five goals and three assists in four games. He’s already one goal away from his total from 23 games last season.

Junior Carter Ottum and senior Gunnar Leary each have five points for the 1-2-1 Abes.

Chippewa Falls

Coach: Scott Parker

2017-18 record: 13-10-1

Chippewa Falls made quite the statement on Thursday, upsetting reining Big Rivers and Wisconsin state champion Hudson.

The Cardinals lost their top two point producers from last season, but Isaac Frenette showed in the team’s season opener that he’s capable of carrying the mantle. The skilled sophomore notched a hat trick in Chippewa Falls’ 5-1 victory against Marshfield.

Goalie Jaden Hoople leads the Big Rivers with a .932 save percentage and a 1.90 goals against average.

Rice Lake

Coach: Josh Engel

2017-18 record: 9-15-0

The Warriors and head coach Josh Engel, a national champion in 2006 with the Badgers, are still looking for their first win of the season two games in.

Issac Mason and Riley Strohm each have a goal and an assist this year. Trey Aaby returns after leading the team with 19 points in 2017-18.

Menomonie

Coach: Matt Ellis

2017-18 record: 5-10-0

Two Mustangs are averaging a goal per game so far this season in Carter Davidson and Kaleb Miller, while three others have found the net twice. Davidson’s nine points is second in the Big Rivers.

Cole Mensing has two goals and five assists. Goalie Jackson Skutt has made a Big Rivers-leading 113 saves.

RAM

Coach: Nick Stirmel

2017-18 record: 10-14-0

RAM has snown it isn’t afraid to get into offensive slugfests, scoring a combined 10 goals as they split a pair of games last week.

Nolan Hellegers and Tommy Schmidt have each scored three times in three games.