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Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Fort Wayne Federals coach Kevin Shupenia runs practice recently at Lutheran Health SportsCenter. The Federals qualified for the Tier III Junior A Nationals, beginning Wednesday in Rochester, Minn.

Federals a national hit

Fort Wayne junior team blossoms in 2nd year

– They all get what a quantum leap they’ve made, this collection of young hockey players called the Fort Wayne Federals. It’s the timeline they’re a little fuzzy about.

“I think once we got into December and the showcase tournament we had here, and just how well we were doing compared to other teams in the league; … we started to maybe get an idea focusing on, ‘Hey, maybe we really can get a spot in nationals;’ ” says Kevin Shupenia, Federals head coach.

That right, Cody Hess?

“I’d say in February, everybody kind of looked at it like we’re going to make nationals,” the team’s leading scorer says.

And you, Derek Moss?

“I would have to say January,” the Federals’ captain says. “We thought January was going to be our toughest month, but we played the top three teams, and we did well.”

So December, January, February. Pick a month.

Just don’t pick against these guys, now that they’ve gone from a shorthanded first-year junior hockey team to a qualifier for the Tier III Junior A Nationals in just one season.

The Feds went from fledglings to a Great Lakes Junior Hockey League power in not much more than the blink of an eye, going 34-10-1 to finish second to Chicago. They hit the finish line with a flourish, winning their last 15 games, beating Chicago three straight times and reaching the finals of the Lakes Cup in Kalkaska, Mich., two weeks ago.

There, Chicago beat them. But because Chicago had already qualified by winning the regular season, the Federals got a bid to nationals, too.

“I thought we had a good shot at winning the way we were playing the last two months,” Shupenia said. “But it’s tough to beat a team four times in a row.”

Tougher yet to compete when you don’t have enough players, which apparently was part of the problem last year.

“It’s tough to get anything going when you’ve only got about 12 players,” says Moss, a Northrop grad who was the team’s second-leading scorer with 35 goals and 75 points. “It is junior hockey, so you’re going to get some guys hurt. This year we have a full roster, and when guys get hurt we can fill the roster easily. And we just came together as a team.”

Hess, a 20-year-old Decatur native who left Bellmont High his junior year and went to Boston to play hockey, agrees.

“If (Shupenia) had told me at the beginning of year we were going to be at nationals, I’d have looked at Coach and said, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” says Hess, who’s scored 41 goals and 109 points in 40 games. “The thing is, though, we came together as a team, and I think everybody halfway through the season bought into the system. We weren’t jelling at the beginning of the year.”

Shupenia credits a coaching staff that includes former Komet Konstantin Shafranov and everyone rallying around the team for the turnaround.

“We recruited hard for the program and a lot of the local people bought into it and saw what we accomplished,” he says. “And with the coaching staff we put together, and just what we offered the kids, it’s really turned around.”

The nationals begin Wednesday in Rochester, Minn., and the Federals will open play against the Hampton Roads (Va.) Whalers. And they won’t be the only local team advancing to a national tournament; the Fort Wayne Komets Bantam AA team recently won the Indiana state tournament to qualify for the Tier II U14 2A nationals in Wayne, N.J., also beginning Wednesday.

As for the Federals team, they’ve more than met everyone’s expectations.

“Honestly, I thought we had a good team when we started. But I didn’t expect this,” says Shupenia, whose roster includes 15 area players. “If you told me at the beginning of the year we’d be going to the national championships, I’d have said, ‘Well, maybe. But it’ll be a lot of work to get there.’ ”

Consider the work well done.