MASON CITY, Iowa – If it’s not about the number of breaths you take, but the number of moments that take your breath away, the North Iowa Bulls are living their best lives with two weeks left in their 2021 stretch run.
Don’t let a four-game losing streak fool you – at 60 games long, the North American Hockey League regular season is a marathon, and even the best teams will go through a lull or two at some point. One of the youngest teams in the NAHL, the Bulls have the best points percentage in the Central Division amid an extremely tight race in the division standings. Four teams – the Bulls, Austin, Minot and Aberdeen – entered the week separated by just two points, though North Iowa had played fewer games than each of the other three.
The Bulls have unwrapped lots of milestone moments as the holidays unfold, and at times it seems those moments have come in bunches. The milestone mash began on November 20, with two players celebrating game number 100 – North Iowa defenseman Casey Roepke stepped onto the ice against the St. Cloud Norsemen for his 100th North American Hockey League game, and forward Sota Isogai earned a call-up from the NA3HL’s Mason City Toros for his 100th junior outing in the United States.
“I came into the league young and I’ve been playing for a while, so it was a cool accomplishment,” said Roepke. “I’m thankful for all my teammates along the way who have helped me to this point. All of [my teammates] were like, ‘You’ve played in the league for so long, you’re an old guy,’ but I never really thought about that. I’m looking forward to a good rest of the season.”
For Isogai, it meant wearing the Bulls uniform once again – he had played two seasons for the Bulls during their time in the NA3HL, but when the Amarillo Bulls relocated to Mason City during the offseason, the Bulls’ Japanese-born forward became a Toros forward as part of the NA3HL team’s rebranding. He ticked a separate milestone off the list on November 19, scoring two goals in a win over the Minnesota Loons to reach 100 points for his junior career. The next night, he was playing in game number 100 just down the highway in St. Cloud.
“It’s a good feeling. I’m honored to get to 100 games and 100 points with the North Iowa organization,” said Isogai. “I didn’t even know until the week before that I was close to either one.”
There’s even a third such milestone currently on hold – North Iowa defenseman Jack Mesic was called up to the United States Hockey League’s Lincoln Stars on November 27, and remains in the USHL after earning his first point with the Stars this past Saturday night. The Plymouth, Michigan native also played seven games in the USHL last season for the Youngstown Phantoms, but played most of the season with the Amarillo Bulls. His game count in the NAHL currently sits at 99.
Recently, the Bulls have been racking up the “firsts” as well – last weekend’s Teddy Bear Toss game against the Norsemen included two debuts in the scoring column. Roepke landed his first assist as a Bull, making a pass to help set up Michael Mesic’s goal that brought 263 stuffed toys raining out of the seats. Barely 90 seconds later, North Iowa newcomer Dylan Gajewski ripped home his first Bulls goal from the left wing, with defenseman Andrew Stacey earning the first assist of his junior career. Gajewski added two more goals the following night in an overtime loss at St. Cloud, with Isogai earning his first two NAHL assists in that game.
Gajewski made his Bulls debut last Friday night, but it was far from his first time on the Mason City Arena ice. He was a key factor in the Willmar WarHawks’ first-ever run to the NA3HL West Division Finals last season, and tallied eight points in six regular-season and postseason road games in Mason City. After earning a call-up to the NAHL’s Austin Bruins this season, he returned to the North Iowa ice in two Bruins road games, with an assist on November 13.
“It feels much better coming into this rink knowing there are going to be a thousand-plus fans cheering for you this time, not against you,” noted Gajewski after Friday’s game. “I found out on Tuesday that I was coming here, got here on Wednesday morning, practiced and moved into my billet, practiced Thursday, pregame (skate) today and I played today. It’s been a crazy couple of days for me.”
Former Jamestown Rebel Brett Morich and former New Jersey Titan Jake LaRusso notched their first goals as Bulls in that same November 20 game against the Norsemen. LaRusso’s debut goal as a Bull came in his very first outing, and for the Colts Neck, New Jersey native, the first week in Mason City was a whirlwind. He would make his first public appearance with the Bulls on Wednesday at the Franklin Wellness Center in Hampton, barely a day after coming to Mason City for the first time. By Saturday, with 124 games under his belt as a Titan, LaRusso had his first game as a Bull, and his first goal as a Bull.
“I left [Monday] night at midnight. My mom drove me – it was an 18-hour car ride,” said LaRusso. “I feel like I’ve been here since the start of the season, that’s how cool the boys are and the coaches, that’s how much of a family they are.”
Morich’s goal came in his third game as a Bull, wrapping up the scoring in North Iowa’s 7-4 win that night. The Phoenix-born forward faced the Bulls once before during the 2021-22 season, tallying an assist in the Rebels’ 4-1 win over the Bulls at the NAHL Showcase in September.
“I’m super happy to be on the other side of that competition,” said Morich. “I remember that game vividly – it was super tough. The hockey’s phenomenal here. It’s obviously one of the top leagues in the world and every team’s competitive.”
There could be more milestones waiting down the road, with 150 career junior games in sight this season for LaRusso. With 83 career NAHL games, defenseman Greg Japchen would likely be the next Bull to reach the century mark, while Sean Vlasich (72), Carter Rapalje (67) and Max Scott (66) could all get there before the end of the season.
Four games remain for North Iowa before the Christmas break, starting with this weekend’s games against the Springfield Jr. Blues. Friday and Saturday’s home games are the Bulls’ last in 2021.