The Centennials are profiled in the BCHL Insider Newsletter as sent out by the league office today.
Cents In Rarified Air Of Interior Conference For The First Time In A Long Time
At this point, it seems unlikely anyone is going to catch the Penticton Vees for the Interior Conference lead. But the season is just approaching the halfway point and the team with the best shot at catching them is the Merritt Centennials.
Yes, you read that right. The Cents, who haven't had a winning record since the 2005-06 season and staggered to consecutive 13-win seasons in 2008 and 2009, are in second place with a 15-7-2-4 record.
Merritt native Luke Pierce, who really began putting his stamp on this club at the start of last season, is the youngest coach in the league at 28 but is already getting results with his hometown team.
"This all started at the beginning of last year," said Pierce. who was a forward in his playing days with the Cents and Vernon Vipers before going to school at Royal Military College for five seasons. "I don't think there's any real secret to it; it's a great bunch of kids and we're a balanced team."
While the team isn't a real high-scoring bunch, leaders Regan Soquila, Chad Brears and Evan Stack are reliable and every night it seems another player is making the difference.
"Throughout our lineup, I could name every guy and they've all contributed," said Pierce. "We try to use four lines as much as we can, our goalies (Lino Chimienti and Tyler Steel) are splitting (playing time) and that speaks to the unselfishness of our group, which is rare in today's game."
Still, there are some rough spots Pierce would like to iron out. The team has allowed more goals (90) than it has scored (88), and is second-last in the BCHL in both power play and penalty killing. Yet they're getting timely saves and goals and are 6-2-1-1 over their last 10 games.
"I think the goals for and against, obviously we didn't have a great start (to the season) and if you crop that out, we'd have a much better stat there," said Pierce. "We went a long stretch there without Reece Willcox (who was at the World Junior A Challenge) and Brandon Pfeil was hurt for a while. It's a part of our game we want to improve on. Every team has something they need to work on and that's ours."
And fans in the Nicola Valley have not failed to take notice. Attendance is up significantly over last year's average and some recent games have seen near-capacity crowds pack Nicola Valley Arena.
"It's been great," said Pierce. "The town is excited about it. The results have changed here but they just expect a good effort; that's what junior hockey is all about."