After ten seasons of middling, the Valencia Flyers finally turned a corner last season and established themselves as a force in the Western States Hockey League, behind an unlikely playoff run.
Jocelyn Langlois played a huge part in the transformation, as the fourth Flyers' head coach in just over three seasons created an identity for his team and put Valencia back on the map in the process.
Langlois, along with General Manager Scott Allegrini, recruited hard in the immediate area, which has always been ripe with talent but players have been known to head out of state for what they felt were better opportunities.
That all changed last season, as the Flyers began the year with a solid core of local players and only got stronger as the season went along, luring in talent from all over the globe.
It wasn't all roses however, as early on the Flyers looked as though they'd mire in mediocrity yet again, beginning the season by losing six of their first seven games.
Veterans stepped their game up and rookies blossomed as the season went along and in November, they proved their worth in two consecutive shootout losses to the powerful Fresno Monsters but still struggled with the rest of the division.
The Flyers were hovering around a playoff spot heading into the mid-season Showcase when they wound up catching fire under Las Vegas' lights.
Over the four games, a new-look Flyers squad picked up seven out of the possible eight points, including a big win over the Southern Oregon Spartans, then of the NORPAC.
With his team's mojo flowing coming out of the holiday break, Langlois was able to further fortify his roster by picking up five players whom would all have a huge hand in their strong stretch run.
Valencia started the new year on the right foot with a three-game sweep of the Ogden Mustangs, before losing their fourth game of the season against the San Diego Gulls, a team they have struggled with historically (foreshadowing.)
If their success in Las Vegas was a turning point, a home series against the Boulder Bison in late January was a runway for a takeoff.
Against one of the most lethal teams in the league, the Flyers twice found themselves trailing heading into the third period and twice came back to win in regulation, while also coming inches away from doing it a third time
The four points against Boulder helped set the tone for the stretch run, as despite being swept in Idaho the next weekend, the Flyers turned it up late.
After the three defeats in McCall, Valencia finished off the regular season by winning six of their last seven games, including two over San Diego, whom they hadn't beaten since December of 2010.
The run was sparked by the strong play of the newcomers, who were led by forward Sebastien Beauregard and his 27 points in 15 games with the team. Not to be outdone, the core, which was led all season by Austin Ehrlich and Eddie Keshishian, did their part in helping the Flyers creep within a single point of San Diego for second place in the division.
Low and behold, the Flyers opened the post-season with another clash in San Diego with the Gulls, a team they now knew they could beat.
True to form, the Flyers went into hostile territory and took game one of the three game series, thanks to a hat-trick by forward J.P. Bouchard, stealing the momentum and taking control of the series.
Game two was the epitome of playoff hockey, as both teams finished every check and both goaltenders were on top of their game. The Gulls' Tomas Busek scored the lone goal of the contest however, sending the series to a decisive third game.
With their season hanging in the midst, the comeback kids struck again.
Trailing 1-0 heading into the third period, the Flyers scored three straight times over the final 20 minutes, bouncing the rival Gulls from the playoffs and moving on to the Western Division Finals, where they were set to take on the Fresno Monsters.
After dropping game one in Fresno, the Flyers once again responded, winning game two in overtime and forcing another energy-packed third game.
In the end, the clock struck midnight on the Cinderella Story, as Fresno was just too much. The Flyers stuck around the whole game but wound up losing by a score of 4-2 and had to watch while the Monsters celebrated their division title.
As disheartening as it is to make it that far and lose, there is a new excitement around the team in Valencia, as both the fans and players are ecstatic about what the future holds for a program that has suddenly become one of the top destinations in the league.
Langlois' abilities were quite evident in his first season coaching junior hockey and with yet another strong summer of recruiting, there is already talk of his Flyers being a favorite in the new Pacific Division.
They can't get too confident yet but all signs point toward a storm coming out of Valencia this season.
Players Moving Up:
Winning is great and all but Langlois takes pride in moving his players up. In fact, I saw him trying to move his players up to the Tier II North American Hockey League while his team was still in the middle of their playoff push.
Three players from last season's squad have gone on to play NCAA Division III hockey this season, including forward Eric Czarnick. The assistant captain encompassed the new attitude Langlois implemented and his hard work paid off, as he's currently playing at the University of New England.
Two defensemen also head east, as Brandon Weise is not too far from Czarnick at Becker College and Albert Boyamyan is a little closer to home at Finlandia University in Hancock, Michigan.
Defenseman Jordan Furlane, who was another big key to the late-season success, is back north of the border with the Grand Prairie Storm of the Tier II Alberta Junior Hockey League.
The Flyers are absolutely stacked on offense, so much so that Langlois can't tell the difference between his first and third line.
The headlining returners are Eddie Keshishian and Austin Ehrlich.
The latter led all rookies in goal scoring last season, while Keshishian's 71 points were second overall in the entire league.
Also returning to the team is Preston Nowak, who has vastly improved over the summer and will make the move from defense this season, where he's expected to center a line with his buddy Ehrlich, which can't hurt his scoring output.
Hunter Jensen, who made the seamless jump from youth hockey late in the season, will also come back and bring his "bull in a china shop" power forward mentality to the team.
Langlois has also made full use of his eight import spots this season, bringing over a small army of impact players.
Coming over from Russia are forwards Kevin Antipov and Sergey Dyachenko, both of whom were drafted in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Antipov is an Ivan Drago-esque power forward and once he learns the North American game, will surely be playing in the NAHL. Dyachenko is much smaller but consistently makes plays with the puck and has a knack for finding the back of the net.
Two more forwards also cross the Atlantic but by way of Sweden.
Philip Zubenko is a small, yet highly skilled forward who sees the ice like a veteran and Jacob Larsson has some of the best hands you'll see at this level.
In all, Langlois returns eight forwards from last season's squad and rounds the group out with a ton of European skill.
If you're still looking for a weakness, you won't find it on the backend, as four more players return.
The group is led by Jake Ryan, who is widely considered to be the toughest guy in the league.
He's worked on his skating over the off-season and has been playing a much more disciplined game.
Alex Descheneaux returns to Valencia for his third season with the team, after playing last year at home in Michigan. He's another rugged d-man that many forwards choose to stay away from in front of the net.
Lance Pennington is in the best shape of his life after dropping nearly 50 points over the summer and is showing a new offensive flair that should have him seeing time on the power play.
The last of the returners, Dillon Thomas, has figured out how to use his size and play with an edge, which makes him that much better of a player.
Puck-moving defenseman Viktor Hook is one of the four Swedes on the roster and should have a big role on Langlois' blueline in his first season in the US.
Stephen Palmer is back for his third season with the team and when on top of his game, there are few better in the league.
He has had his ups-and-downs in the past but will certainly be on his game this year, especially with Langlois bringing Jesper Sannerborg in from Sweden.
Sannerborg is a big goaltender, who looked very solid in an exhibition game last weekend. He's not as polished as Palmer but has shown flashes of brilliance.
Regardless of who starts, Langlois likes to give his top guy adequate rest during the regular season and can trust both to steal a game, if needed.
The Flyers will also benefit from reduced travel this season, as their division has changed yet again.
Out are the two Arizona teams and in are two first-year programs; the Ontario Avalanche and Bay Area Seals. The Flyers played and beat the Seals twice in exhibition games but learned they were far from a doormat. Fresno, San Diego and Long Beach also return and all three tend to play the Flyers extremely tough.
They'll also meet the Idaho Jr. Steelheads for the fourth straight season, which should be a great measuring stick for the team. They'll also play at the Southern Oregon Spartans and host the Arizona Redhawks.
They are set to open the season next weekend in Ogden, Utah, where they'll take on the upstart Ogden Mustangs for three games, who certainly won't be the same team the Flyers swept in January.
Can the Flyers keep the momentum going, especially going into the season as a favorite? Only time will tell but if they can do what they did last season with the talent hey currently have on the roster, the Valencia Flyers have the ability to not only win games but to dominate.
Brent Maranto is the Director of Communications for the Western States Hockey League