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Nick Cecere let out a groan when recalling his trip last season from Des Moines, Iowa, to Port Alberni, British Columbia, for the start of the hockey season.

His dad came with him. They stopped at Mount Rushmore before heading west toward Washington. It was 32 hours of driving over three days.

"We were probably about to kill each other at the end of the trip from being cooped up in the car," the defenseman said this week.

The memory of that trip makes this season even more of a treat. He's back playing in the United States Hockey League and gets to do it for the Lincoln Stars, playing three hours from his West Des Moines home.

That makes Cecere the local guy on the Stars' 23-man roster, even if it's not the same as last season, when Omaha native Matt Bruneteau was the Stars' captain. Cecere is the only Stars player from a neighboring state and one of four Iowa natives in the league.

The USHL brings players to Lincoln from all over the country and world. Bruneteau was the first Nebraska native to play for the Stars, and there are only two Nebraska natives among the 380 players in the USHL this season. Nick Oddo (Omaha Lancers) and Gage Hough (Cedar Rapids) are both from Omaha. Michigan and Minnesota produced the most players this season, with about 60 from each state.

Cecere's dad played in college and some pro hockey, and had him skating as soon as they moved to Des Moines when he was 5. Cecere was at prep school when he got called up to play for the Des Moines Buccaneers of the USHL during the final 30 games of the 2008-09 season. The season was a disaster for Des Moines, which went 12-43-5, but Cecere got to fulfill his USHL dream.

"Playing in Des Moines was awesome," Cecere said. "They let a lot of the team go before the next season, but it turned out to be a blessing, because playing in Canada was great for my career. I had a great team and great coach."

Last season, Cecere played for Alberni Valley of the British Columbia Hockey League. It was a similar league to the USHL, with a 60-game schedule and host families, and Cecere loved how important hockey is in Canada.

But he was also glad to be drafted by the Stars and earn one of only four roster spots allowed for 20-year-old players. Cecere is friends with former Star David Gerths, who told Cecere it was great playing in Lincoln.

And now, Cecere's family comes to many Lincoln games. His relatives also can watch him play nearby in Omaha, Waterloo and Sioux City, Iowa.

"Even after a great season in Canada I wanted to be closer to home for my last year of juniors. I was talking to quite a few USHL teams, but I'm glad I ended up here," said Cecere, who has accepted a scholarship to Michigan Tech.

Cecere never has been a big goal scorer and has no goals this season. From a young age he focused on keeping the puck out of his net and let his defensive partner join the scoring rush.

There has been more than one time this season that Cecere made a big play to break up what looked to be a sure goal. More evidence of the confidence coaches have in Cecere is that he is one of five Lincoln players to play all 34 games this season.

"Nick's quietly probably been one of our top two defensemen on any given night," coach Chad Johnson said. "You never really notice him out there because he doesn't make mistakes. Sometimes as a defenseman it's good not to be noticed."

Briefly

-- The USHL trade deadline is Sunday night. Lincoln hasn't made any roster moves yet this week, but Johnson says it's still possible.

-- In a schedule rarity, Lincoln will host Sioux Falls on both Friday and Saturday. Fourth-place Sioux Falls is one of the hottest teams in the league with an 8-2 record in its past 10 games.

-- St. Cloud State plays at Nebraska-Omaha on Friday and Saturday. Former Lincoln coach Steve Johnson is an assistant coach for St. Cloud, and former Star Jared Festler is a leading scorer for the Huskies.

Reach Brent C. Wagner at 402-473-7435 or bwagner@journalstar.com.

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