WATERLOO — Try as he may, Waterloo Black Hawks coach P.K. O’Handley is not ready to let the 2016-17 season go quite yet.
With what he felt was perhaps one of the best teams he’s ever had in his 15 seasons as head coach and general manager of the Black Hawks, O’Handley hasn’t been able to process fully Waterloo’s Game 5 loss to the Sioux City Musketeers in the Western Conference finals.
“It is still pretty raw,” O’Handley said. “It was an unfortunate way to end. You know you sit in September and say you’re going to be in a Game 5 in the Western Conference finals in May you’d like your chances. Then you get there and don’t reach your ultimate goal and it leaves a bitter taste.
“It was the most fun I’ve had with a tremendous group of young men. That is probably the hardest part is wanting it for them as bad as anything and I really felt they deserved it and that is taking nothing away from Sioux City, Dubuque or Chicago the other Final Four teams.”
Even with the fact that his top three forwards — Shane Bowers, Nick Swaney and Alex Limoges — were less than 70 percent healthy for the series against Sioux City, he felt his team would find a way to win it.
And when his team trailed 5-3 just 1 minute and 51 seconds into the third period of that Game 5 loss he still felt the same way. Then a Waterloo penalty led to a Sioux City goal and things unraveled.
“It sounds like an excuse,” O’Handley said of if the injuries to his star forwards affected how his team played. “Those were factors, but I’ve told this story privately is when we were down 5-3 in that game our staff and players felt we were really going to win that game.
“Then an unfortunate penalty and it was like somebody popped all four tires at the same time.”
With the season over still fresh, O’Handley, as most seasons, only learned of how the Clark Cup finals played out from his wife Maria, who would relay him the scores each night.
While the loss remained raw, O’Handley and his staff of Shane Fukushima and Bryce Anderson plunged their energies into Waterloo’s try-out camp that was held in Chicago May 25-28.
“I thought it was good,” O’Handley said. “It’s the end of May so experience says you can’t get too high or too low, but I liked overall what we saw.”
O’Handley said he felt Waterloo’s first-round pick in Phase II of the United States Hockey League draft, forward Sam Huff of Maple Grove, Minn., was an impactful and noticeable player during camp.
Former North Dakota goalie Matej Tomek showed why the Philadelphia Flyers drafted him three years ago, and is a key player after both of Waterloo’s goalies — Robbie Beydoun and Peter Thome have moved onto the college ranks.
“He is going to need to get his rhythm,” O’Handley said. “It is all there and I think he is going to be a tremendous key guy for us. We are excited and he is excited and when those two things happen good things usually follow. He wants to be the No. 1 guy and we are going to give him the opportunity.”
Waterloo will also bring two other goalies into preseason camp, draftee Jared Moe of Holy Family Catholic (Minn) and Seth Eisele of Stillwater, Minn.
O’Handley was also impressed with some of his veterans, especially guys like Jackson Cates, Ben Copeland, Ethan Johnson and Garrett Klee.
“From that standpoint we have a good base to build with,” O’Handley said. “We will be extremely fast. I think we are good in goal tempering that until we play a game here or a real game in the USHL. But in theory we are solid in goal and we are probably going to be a team that will defend reasonably well.
“But you take Shane Bowers, Nick Swaney and Mikey Anderson out of your lineup that is a lot to rebuild.”