MARQUETTE - Rather than hit the ground running, it's more appropriate to say the Marquette Royales have hit the ice skating - and shooting, scoring and winning.
The first-year program not only won its division of the 16-team Minnesota Junior Hockey League, but took the league playoff title and has qualified for the USA Hockey Tier III Junior National Championships that begin Thursday in Simsbury, Conn.
Pretty good for an expansion team that got a late start, not even getting its lease for ice time signed with the city of Marquette until July.
But the organization caught up quickly thanks to the efforts of staff members, led by head coach Mike Stanaway.
"This is really gratifying to see how this team has come together, especially for myself since I'm from here," said Stanaway, who grew up in Marquette until moving to the Green Bay, Wis., area in high school.
He came back to the Upper Peninsula to play hockey at Finlandia University in Hancock and has been coaching for most of the past decade, returning home after coaching other junior teams, most recently in Oregon.
"Marquette is home to me," Stanaway said last July. "I couldn't pass up an opportunity to come back here."
He was also able to draw some of the players he had on previous teams, so he wasn't starting from scratch for this team of 18- to 21-year-olds.
"I've been doing this for a long time, so I kind of know the pieces you have to have to have a good team," said Stanaway, 33. "We have the right group of guys.
"We have a very prolific offense, and our defense and goaltending are top-notch.
"You look up and down our roster, and within our league, skill-wise is where we have an edge. Some teams play a more defensive style, but I like our playmaking ability.
"Of course, in the (national) tournament, the teams will be that much better."
The coach put together the top-scoring unit in the MnJHL, led by a trio of triple-digit scorers for a team that is 42-10-0 overall including playoffs.
Winger Lane King has 28 goals and 105 assists for 133 points, despite missing five games when he moved up to play for a team in the Tier II North American Hockey League before deciding to return about six weeks later.
It's easy to see who he often sets up, since his other winger linemate Dallas McLaughlin, a former Marquette Electricians standout, has scored 69 goals and added 50 assists for 119 points in 46 games.
In addition, Robby Gervino has played in all 52 games and has 39 goals and 64 assists for 103 points.
Most recently, though, Marquette Senior High School graduate Mike House has been King's and McLaughlin's center, even with just 11 goals and five assists for 16 points.
Four other players have at least 40 points - Jeff Salzbrunn with 18-52-70, Nick DeSimone with 18-38-56, Anthony Casaletto with 31-18-49 and Blake Jorenby with 11-33-44.
In goal, Nate Eminger has played the most and compiled a 17-5 record, 2.98 goals-against average and .912 saves percentage.
But former Negaunee High School standout Bryce Leaf and Walker Enstad each have logged more than 800 minutes in net, Leaf going 13-1, with a 2.84 GAA and .903 saves percentage; and Enstad, 9-4, 3.67 GAA and .889 saves.
Other U.P. residents on the roster are Hayden Rajala of Marquette, Trevor Givens of Hancock and Brett Hebert of Iron River.
The Royales actually lost their first two games in September before reeling off 26 straight wins.
Another rough patch of four losses in five games spanning the Christmas holidays has been supplanted by their current 15-3 run, including 5-1 in the MnJHL playoffs that was capped off by a 3-2 overtime victory over the Dells Ducks of Lake Delton, Wis., in the league championship game on March 24 in Oregon, Wis. It gave the Royales the league's Bush Cup as playoff champion.
The Royales' fourth game in four days was decided when Salzbrunn slapped home a shot four minutes into the extra period following King's pickoff of a Ducks' pass and dish down low to his teammate.
That game was actual a formality as far as the Tier III nationals go, since the league is sending two teams to Connecticut.
What clinched the national tourney berth was a semifinal series against the Hudson (Wis.) Crusaders, when the Royales needed the third and deciding game after winning 3-2 in overtime, losing 5-4 in overtime then clinching with a 6-4 victory.
King scored the game winner in the opener, while McLaughlin broke a 4-4 tie in the third game with two goals in the final 2:21.