The Lakeland Union High School boys' hockey team has not posted a winning campaign since the 2011-2012 season, but when practice began Monday, there was some optimism.
Lakeland has an influx of new talent and some returning pieces that have it feeling good about the upcoming season.
It's no different than previous seasons, however, in the eyes of LUHS head coach Ken Thanig.
"My expectations are always very high, but you never know until you get going and start playing games," Thanig said. "That's where reality hits. We do have a great bunch of kids. Sometimes young guys really step up and other times it takes them a while to get moving. As far as skill, we have a good bunch of seniors, good leadership on our team this year and also good freshman and sophomore classes. We have a lot of young players that have a lot to learn, but they'll pick it up quickly."
The first few days of practice are dedicated to tryouts as usual.
With roughly 30 players out for the team, it's a solid number for a varsity and a JV squad.
"It's a real good number," Thanig said. "It's a real good number to be right where we want to be."
Coaches usually have a good idea of what the majority of the team will look like before the season even starts.
Nathan Pitek returns between the pipes and should be one of the top goaltenders in the Great Northern Conference after being an honorable mention All-GNC selection last year.
Caleb Menzia, Tanner Nicklaus and Max Ertl all return after getting significant playing time last season. Tyler Carroll is also back at forward after missing most of last season due to injury.
Bret Benson earned honorable mention All-GNC honors last season as a freshman, but an injury has him sidelined as practice begins. When he returns, though, he should be one of the top scorers on the team.
There are a few roster spots open on the varsity, however, which means the first three days of tryouts will be important to see who fills those roles.
"There's quite a few up for grabs right now," Thanig said. "There's quite a few guys that are going to be tough decisions at the end of the week. We have quite a few kids that are pretty much in the same area for skill. They're all good kids, they all work hard and not a lot separates some of these guys out there."
So what is the coaching staff looking for from each player to separate themselves from the pack?
"We're looking for, obviously, attitude," Thanig said. "We're looking for guys that just work hard, just give 110 percent out there, but they also have to have skill. Guys that we can develop and kids who can step in and play varsity if they need to. Most of the guys on the bubble will be JV players with an opportunity to play some varsity. We'll roster 20 on varsity, and whoever's not on varsity will be rostered on JV."
During summer workouts Thanig was excited about the incoming freshman class.
Relying on freshman is always difficult given the steep learning curve of stepping into high school hockey, along with the fact that their bodies have not quite matured physically and mentally yet.
Lakeland does need an added boost to its offensive game, as scoring was a struggle for most of last season.
The Thunderbirds finished last in the GNC in scoring with just 24 goals in 13 conference games.
"That's something that will come with time. A lot of that depends on chemistry on our lines and sometimes it takes time to find that chemistry between players," Thanig said. "We have some more skilled players this year. Sometimes the young players - freshman, sophomores - will start clicking right away, sometimes it might not be until after Christmas break. It's not something we primarily focus on. We want to have a good foundation, have good fundamentals and the key is to improve and get better as the season goes on."
Lakeland scrimmages at Northland Pines on Nov. 16, before opening the season on Nov. 28 at home against D.C. Everest.
Nick Sabato may be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter @SabatoNick.