Ranked No. 12 in the 2022-2023 American Collegiate Hockey Association Men’s Division I Top 25 (as of Feb. 1) is Illinois State University, the lone representative from the state and a team filled with former Illinois high school student-athletes.
Minot State University, with its perfect 21-0 record, is No. 1-ranked for the eighth consecutive ACHA Men’s Division I poll, followed by Adrian College (20-2-1), University of Nevada-Las Vegas (15-2-0), Ohio University (21-4-1) and Liberty University (12-8-1).
The Redbirds are 22-3-2, with six February games remaining on the team’s regular season.
“The (ACHA) Division I level is very competitive, with players from around the world,” said Trevor Hilt, an ISU senior from Cary, Ill., who played three years of JV and one varsity season at Stevenson High School in suburban Lincolnshire before graduating in 20I8.
He will graduate this year from ISU with a recreation management degree.
“Everyone at the Division I level must be constantly working to get better, whether that be working out every day during the season or skating as much as you can over the summer. You must put in more work than you did the day, week, or month before.
“High school and travel hockey prepares you the best it can, but the adaptability and passion is what sets the college player apart from the rest. Most playing Division I spend a couple years playing junior hockey to build their skills before playing college hockey, which is why Division I players can tend to be older.”
Illinois State, which plays in the 6-team Midwest College Hockey league, features a variety of players from juniors, AAA programs, CSDHL and Illinois high school programs. Their ages range from 18 to 24.
Now in its 32nd season, there have been a total of 14 schools that have won the ACHA Men’s Division I National Championship. Over the past 19 seasons, 12 different schools have won the ACHA Men’s Division I National Championship, led by Lindenwood (4 times). The University of Illinois is a 2-time winner, but the Illini are now not ranked in the Top 25.
Seventy teams compete at the ACHA Men’s Division I level this season and the defending champion, Lindenwood University, has departed to play NCAA Men’s Division I.
“Being held back and cut from multiple teams during the course of my career has prepared me for not only college hockey, but also the reality of life,” Hilt said. “Being cut multiple times has been the fuel for so long in my hockey career. ISU hockey has been the only team I have ever been on that has noticed ability and natural talent from the start. ISU made me confident in myself like no other program had before, and I thrived because of it.
“Being cut from the Ice Dogs silver team when I was 13 and ending on the ‘lower’ bantam bronze team, or the time I was cut from the Stevenson varsity team my junior year and playing 3 years of JV hockey has forever impacted my career. I learned that nothing was ever going to be given to me, but rather, (everything) needed to be proved and earned. Although it sounds cheesy, shooting pucks in my basement and the support of my parents made me the player, but more importantly, the person I am today.”
Hilt, 22, is an ISU left wing on the line with right wing Mitchel Oberlag and center Tony Campise, who formerly played for the co-op Waubonsie Valley Hockey Team and the Geneva Cyclones (CSDHL). Hilt learned to skate at the Crystal Lake Ice House when he was 4 and played for the Ice Dogs. He was the Stevenson assistant captain as a senior.
He is the ISU captain.
“Michael Hernbrott, coach of ISU’s Division II team, introduced me to ISU Hockey while attending some of my high school hockey games as a recruiter,” Hilt said. “I had previously contacted Hernbrott about wanting to further my education and hockey career at Illinois State University and was caught by surprise when I met him in person and realized just how seriously he took me, my ability, and the ISU Hockey program. I knew beforehand that ISU had a Division I and Division II team, which would give me the chance to start on Division II and grow with the program to hopefully play on Division I. The opportunity to improve as a player is really what attracted me to play for the Redbirds.
“Aside from the promise of growth, the opportunity to meet and play with new guys from around the Midwest was exciting. When I went to my first prospect skate in late April of my senior year of high school, I had the opportunity to meet with some of the players on the team, get to know how the program worked, and get an inside look at the logistics behind a hockey team that you typically do not take part in at the high school level. The players of the organization are what sealed the deal to make the decision to come to ISU. Everyone I talked to was inviting and friendly, which made me feel beyond welcome and excited to play for ISU.”
Hilt added, “ISU Hockey is far from the typical club. When you play for Illinois State University hockey, no matter which division you play for, you treat it as a real college hockey program. The coaches and players together have molded the program to the successful level we are at today. ISU hockey is the perfect balance of feeling like you are playing for a real NCAA program, while still having the luxury of your free time and social life.”
The program has academic requirements around player’s GPA and classes.
“This organization has introduced me to friends I will have for life, which significantly helps with chemistry on the ice during games,” Hilt said. “ISU hockey is a tight-knit group that allows you to be yourself and to make connections after hockey. This organization has given me the structure, accountability and discipline that prepares you for the real world, whether you attempt to continue your hockey career after college or go on to a job. ISU Hockey has given me experiences and memories that will last a lifetime. Whether it be for Illinois State University or another college hockey team, I highly encourage you to try out and find a school that you want to spend four years at, playing the sport you love.”
ISU’s Division I team features players from Park Ridge and Franklin Park, from Elmhurst and Elmwood Park. There’s a forward from Aurora and a defenseman from Rosemont.
“There will always be some sort of semi-serious rivalry when you first see players from other high school teams trying out for your college hockey team, or even after the season starts and you’re getting to know where everyone is from,” Hilt said. “It is always a good time reminiscing about high school hockey and using rivalries against each other to push buttons. It has been nothing short of incredible playing with fellow former Illinois high school players. Someone always sparks up some back-and-forth trash talk, whether that’s with players on your own team or on the ice when you play against previous high school teammates.
“When I first began playing for Illinois State, I was shocked at the amount of high schools I learned about that I didn’t know had a hockey team or didn’t even know existed. It was interesting as the season went on to see how similar or different these players were to players from my high school team, and even better to learn from them. At the end of the day, high school hockey prepares you the best it can for college hockey, but it is your job to make the most of it and move forward with your career if you play in college. College hockey is an honor and a privilege to be involved in that many players do not get the opportunity to do.”
ISU Hockey was founded in I969, making it the oldest student-run organization on campus. The team’s home games are played at the conjoined Grossinger Motors Arena and the Bloomington Ice Center. Built in 2005 the arena can seat up to 5,000 and the Division I team has an exclusive locker room in the arena.
ISU brings a Division I, II and III team – and each roster is loaded with former Illinois high school student-athletes.
About I20 participated in ISU tryouts for this season.
Each team carries 3 goalies and 25 skaters.
“The biggest reason Illinois high school students should come to ISU Hockey is for the connections and the lifelong friendships that you will make with your teammates,” Hilt said. “My advice to all high school hockey players is follow your own path and no matter what college you visit or attend make sure you make your decision based on academics, not hockey. Pick the school first for its academics, then choose hockey because if, for whatever reason, you don’t make it or you get injured, at least you will pick the school that is right for you.”
Hilt said his favorite ISU Hockey memories are the road trips, visiting other cities and college campuses, which he “will cherish forever,” he said. “Also, being able to build chemistry and have fun on road trips with some of my best friends is a bonus. My memories of playing the game I love with my teammates is a core memory and will be I of the things I will miss the most when I graduate.”
Chris Prewitt, 32, who lives in Normal, is the director of hockey operations and Division I head coach for the Redbirds. He brings 10 years of coaching experience to the ISU bench, mostly for the Bloomington Thunder organization. This is his second season with Illinois State.
“It’s amazing to see how much ISU Hockey has changed over (the past) 50 years,” Prewitt said. “We take pride in our history while also looking forward to how we can continue to grow our organization.
“It takes an army to pull off everything that needs to be done because we get very little school help. So, it requires the players to take on even more to ensure (the organization) is successful.”
All of the Division I team’s home games are played in the big arena, while the Division II and Division III teams alternate between the arena and the Bloomington Ice Center.
“Illinois State University is an excellent school with a ton of different programs and majors. In addition, it’s far enough away from home, for most students, that they get the full college experience, but can still drive home for a home cooked meal and help with laundry,” Prewitt said. “ISU hockey is just an addition to those perks. We strive to treat our athletes no differently than they would be treated at an NCAA (team) while allowing them to continue playing the sport they love and compete at a high level.”
ISU’s D2 team (14-9-1) will make the playoffs this season while being ranked 20th in the region. The D3 team ended 10-6.
The D1 team is having its best season in D1 history.
“Our initial goals for the D1 team this season are to win the MCH conference championship and earn a spot in the D1 nationals to compete for a D1 national championship,” Prewitt said.
“High school hockey is huge for our program. With most of our players coming from the Illinois area, a large portion of them spent time with the high school team developing and getting better before they moved on to their next step.”
Prewitt talks regularly with Chicago-area coaches and also visits often too, to spot future Redbirds.
“The biggest (D1) memory so far this season is going 3-0-1 against Maryville after they beat us all three times last year,” Prewitt said. “Next would be getting to the 18-win mark in the first semester, especially since we finished with only 18 wins last year.
“The whole season has been a great memory. We have an awesome group.”
Prewitt added: “Illinois State University is a great program that is continuing to grow; we look forward to helping Illinois players to continue to play after they are done with high school. We give a lot of players the perfect opportunity to move away from home, get the full college experience while also being close enough that they can go home for a home-cooked meal.”