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New-look prep team honors longtime coach at St. Francis tourney

The Saint Francis hockey program honored longtime and recently retired coach John Bowers at center ice before the prep team’s game against Fountain Valley, on Saturday Jan. 4.

Last weekend marked the 13th playing of the prep hockey tournament hosted by Saint Francis at Leisure Rinks. Known for the past 12 years as the St. Francis Prep Hockey Invitational, it now has a new name, which recognizes Bowers’ contributions to the hockey program over the 26 years he was apart of it.

Now called the St. Francis Bowers Invitational, the tournament features some of the top prep and high school teams from areas such as Canada, Chicago, Colorado and other places throughout the country. The tournament, and the prep hockey program at St. Francis, wouldn’t be in existence if it wasn’t for Bowers and his foresight on big-time hockey in Athol Springs.

Bowers worked with the Red Raiders hockey program for 26 years and was instrumental in forming the Midwest Prep Hockey League (MPHL), in which St. Francis still plays. The Red Raiders won the league in 2003, and were runner-ups in both 2001 and 2007.

But with Bowers gone and the program losing it’s stable force that it’s had for nearly three decades, the commemoration at center ice last Saturday, was the start of a new era. It was a passing of the torch to new head coach Scott Diebold, who believes it is a program on the right path in rebuilding.

“Coach Bowers laid the foundation for this whole thing,” said Diebold, who spent time as an assistant under Bowers. “Now we’re just trying to actively go after it with the kids and get them in the program, believe in the school, believe in what we’re doing and then move forward from there.”

The Red Raiders are the only team in the MPHL to not have a rink on campus, but with the instillation of a new locker room facility, Leisure Rinks is beginning to have a home-rink feel.

The current locker room area, including offices and other rooms, belonged to Erie Community College before it fell into the hands of Bowers and the St. Francis program four years ago.

After they gutted the room from top to bottom, many hours of labor by coaches, parents and people involved with the school has made the room into something they all can be proud of. Financial help came from many places as the school, and the Red Raider Organization made the biggest contributions.

Individual stalls, with players names hanging above each locker, makes it feel like they're inside a professional locker room and is just the first step in evolving into what Diebold and others at the school, including president Father Michael Sajda, and athletic director Steve Otremba, envisions the program becoming.

The St. Francis Bowers Invitational is an example of that process. The tournament features two, four-team divisions with round-robin play before the championship games. It is a tournament that features top talent and has a strong reputation amongst those who have come before and were apart of this year’s games.

“This is a great tournament,” said Wyoming Seminary head coach Josh Morgan.

"We look forward to coming here each year and will be here in the future, as well. Every year, there’s good competition here, same with this year’s. It’s good competition, good competitive games, and it’s a high level.”

“That’s one of the reasons we wanted to come down here. It’s top level competition,” added Nelson head coach Jeff Brock.

The growth of the hockey program at St. Francis hasn’t stopped with just the prep team. The athletic department has put in place a junior prep team, consisting of the top sophomores and freshmen who do not make the varsity prep team. There is also a Federation varsity team and junior varsity club teams.

It’s all in an effort to build a successful program the right way, with the students buying into the school and the program.

“In years to come, I think we have a nice foundation that we’re building toward,” said Diebold. "The same thing with junior prep. It’s all good. There’s a lot of movement and there’s room for these kids to get better.”

The program that St. Francis currently has in place is continuing to grow and the Red Raiders possess the team to help improve that trend. The prep team only has three seniors and will return almost everyone that will have had at least a year in the program.

They have also started getting youth interested in the school and hockey program by running their spring league, SFHL, with 120 kids competing on six different teams. The school also has reached outside the 30-40 mile range, which encompasses most of their current players, by adding a student from Florida that will enroll in the school next year.

The Bowers Invitational is just another way for the Red Raiders to get experience against quality hockey teams, while playing in front of their family, friends and fellow students. Home games are a rarity for St. Francis prep, with the teams in the MPHL located far from this area.

“To have our tournament here and host it and bring eight teams in that are prep high schools, it’s a great level of hockey,” said Diebold. "The kids are all playing for their schools. It’s great competitions. We’ve had so many kids who have played in this who have moved on to play Division III or I and even get drafted into the NHL.”

The latest example of that was Anthony Day. Day graduated from St. Francis in 2009 and went on to play two years in the United States Hockey League (USHL). Day played for the Waterloo Blackhawks, and the Sioux Falls Stampede, the same team for which former Buffalo Sabre Thomas Vanek played. Day now plays for Yale University and was a member of the 2012-2013 NCAA National Championship team.

Nichols high school is the only other high school team in the area to play at this level, so St. Francis' competition is mostly true prep teams, many times with older and more refined players. Bowers said that during his time as head coach, he would tell parents not to be surprised when some of their opponents hit the ice and look like the Buffalo Sabres.

"When they come to prep hockey, [many times] it’s the first time these kids aren’t playing in their own age group," Bowers said. “You might have a stud who’s a bantam-minor, or a bantam-major and all of a sudden, he’s a 15-year-old. We play against 20-year-olds.”

There’s still a lot of work to do in the locker room area, as well as on the ice for the Red Raiders. They’re currently in uncharted waters, in dealing with a coaching change. While it’s not an overnight process, Diebold and all those involved with St. Francis hockey are doing everything they can to establish a top-level hockey program for years to come.



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