It was almost like flipping a switch.
The Lincoln Stars, last in the USHL Western Conference in late January, made the 2017-18 season a memorable one for first-year head coach Cody Chupp, advancing to the playoffs for the 17th time in franchise history.
The Stars turned the season around by winning 20 of their final 25 games to finish 35-23-1-1, good enough for fifth in the Western Conference. Lincoln went on to defeat Sioux Falls 2-1 in the first round of the playoffs before being knocked out by Waterloo for the second time in three years.
“It was a good year for the Lincoln Stars,” Chupp said. “If you look back over the last few years, this is one of, if not the best, year they have had in a while.
“At the same time, I think it's important we view it as what it is — successful — but something we are looking to build on and not satisfied with.”
Dominick Mersch helped lead the way, serving as the Stars' captain. He became one of the longest-tenured players in franchise and USHL history with 181 games played in a three-year span.
This season, Mersch set career highs in goals (22), assists (18) and points (40). He'll play for Wisconsin this winter.
“I came here as a pretty young kid at 16 years old and leaving a young man,” Mersch said. “I matured a lot and grew up a lot here, off the ice especially.
“It's been a crazy ride, a lot of fun and an honor to wear the Stars jersey for the last three years, that's for sure. It's been three of the best years of my life.”
Mersch's leadership is something Chupp said will pay dividends in the coming years for players that are coming back.
“Dominick Mersch is a great hockey player, and what he did on the ice this year speaks for itself on the work that he puts in,” Chupp said. “Dom is an incredible person and an incredible leader. What he does in the locker room, and in the way he lives his life, the example he sets through his actions and the words that he speaks, carries some serious weight. When Dom speaks everyone listens.”
Lincoln will look to build around returning players, but loses three of its top four scorers.
Along with Mersch, the Stars also lose Casey Dornbach, who had his best USHL season, scoring 21 goals and leading the team with 56 points. Dornbach will attend Harvard.
The Stars must also replace Paul Cotter, who leaves for Western Michigan after an 18-goal season in his rookie campaign.
Josiah Slavin, who led the team with 23 goals, is expected to return next season.
“We did have a great core of guys that understand it, that were incredible examples for our young guys,” Chupp said. “It was a great combination of the two, and the guys that are leaving, we will definitely miss. Their legacy in a sense is able to live on through the young guys that they took under their wing this year.”
There's not much of an offseason for the Stars, who prepare for the USHL Phase I and Phase II draft May 8-9, followed by the Stars Futures Camp on June 8-10 in West Dundee, Illinois.