As defending North American 3 Hockey League and USA Hockey Tier III Junior A national champions, the North Iowa Bulls have more returning players than often would be anticipated in that scenario.
Forward Tim Santopoalo is leading the way in making sure the Bulls make the most of a rare opportunity.
“We talk about it,” Santopoalo said of continuing the success. “We know it’s not just going to happen.
“All the veterans on our team are just pushing the rookies and pushing ourselves even more to try to do the best we can.”
That push has carried the Bulls to the league’s only perfect record (14-0-0) and Santopoalo to the top of the league’s scoring race, even though some other NA3HL players have played in as many as eight more games.
“Unexpectedly, we have 12 guys back right now, with the possibility of even another returning,” North Iowa coach Todd Sanden said. “It’s a situation where these kids were so good for us last year that if they do want to come back, they’re welcome.”
Santopoalo, for example, had a tryout with the North American Hockey League’s Minnesota Magicians, but he always knew if that didn’t work out, he would like to be back with the Bulls in Mason City, Iowa.
“I honestly thought I would be in the North American League this year, but the second I didn’t make the team, I was very excited to come back to North Iowa because there’s no place I’d rather play,” he said.
The return allowed Santopoalo to resume classes at North Iowa Area Community College to put himself in the best possible situation to join an NCAA Division III program next season as a transfer student.
The 20-year-old from Roscoe, Ill. has played seven career games in the NAHL, but those came three seasons ago when he was briefly called up to the Janesville Jets during a season in which he won his fourth Illinois high school state title with Rockford.
Sanden, then coaching with the Coulee Region Chill, was impressed by Santopoalo at the time and considered him a player to follow for the future.
After scoring 33 goals and 33 assists last season, Santopoalo has picked up his production this year as the right wing on the NA3HL’s most dangerous line. Through 14 games, Santopoalo has 15 goals and 22 assists to lead the league in scoring while helping North Iowa overpower opponents by a combined 94-27 margin.
Matt Kroska, a 20-year-old from Elko, Minn. who led the Bulls in the scoring the last two seasons, centers the line that also includes Richie Marenis, from Latvia. Marenis is tied for third in the league with 33 points. Kroska leads the NA3HL with 25 assists has 32 total points.
“I couldn’t ask for two better line mates,” Santopoalo said. “All the guys who came back from last year’s team are just awesome.”
Playing with that group, the 5-foot-7, 160-pound Santopoalo continues to impress Sanden.
“The word that comes to mind with Tim Santopoalo is crafty,” Sanden said. “He changes the speed of the game from fast to slow, from slow to quick. He just has an uncanny knack of making people miss him on hits.
“He understands the time and space of the game and gives himself an opportunity every time he has the puck to create plays.”
Santopoalo said that patience is something that has developed naturally in his game and is not something he is aware of other than noticing it when studying film.
“I feel like I’ve always played the same,” he said.
With Santopoalo leading the way, the North Iowa Bulls are looking the same — or even better — than they did a year ago.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.