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Two Jr. Ducks Overcome Trials To Win Junior Championships

By Chris Bayee, 06/19/24, 11:00AM PDT


Merril Steenari Captures USHL's Clark Cup, while Kyle Isenberg Earns NAHL's Robertson Cup

Merril Steenari Captures USHL's Clark Cup, while Kyle Isenberg Earns NAHL's Robertson Cup

Forward Merril Steenari won the USHL's Clark Cup with the Fargo Force on May 18, while defenseman Kyle Isenberg won the NAHL's Robertson Cup three days later. Photos courtesy of Marissa Shiock (Steenari) and Brahmas Media (Isenberg)

Merril Steenari and Kyle Isenberg grew up playing together for the Jr. Ducks, an experience that was capped by a trip to the USA Hockey Nationals in 2021 with the Tier I 16U team

The NCAA Division I recruits will be even more closely linked after this spring — each won a championship with his junior team. Steenari captured the United States Hockey League’s Clark Cup with the Fargo Force, while Isenberg won the North American Hockey League’s Robertson Cup. 

It is believed to be the first time since the club started its AAA program in 2013 that alumni have won championships in the top two U.S.-based junior leagues in the same season. 

“Winning a Clark Cup is a hard thing because the USHL is different than any other league, and Merril was very persistent in staying the course,” said Jr. Ducks Director of Player Development Alex Kim, who coached both 2004 birth years at 16U. “For Kyle to win a Robertson Cup is pretty neat, too, because that league is hard as well.

“They’re both very good players and very good people. Both have an extremely good work ethic and are patient and diligent, which are consistent themes for players who reach these heights.” 

Steenari Overcame a Release to Return to USHL

Both players had to overcome their share of speedbumps and road closures on the way to their respective championships.

Steenari played a season and a half for the Sioux Falls of the USHL before being released. The forward landed with Janesville of the NAHL and relaunched his career. 

“It’s been a grind,” he said. “Obviously, I wanted to make it work however possible in Sioux Falls and tried my best, but it didn’t work out. I knew I wanted to be back in the USHL. The coaches in Janesville knew that and did their best to help me, especially Joe Dibble.”

After 10 points in 78 games at Sioux Falls, Steenari scored 16 in 26 games in Janesville last season. He got off to a blazing start in 2023-24, putting up 21 (11 goals) in just 16 games. The rediscovery of his goal-scoring groove caught Fargo’s interest.

“Going into Fargo could not have been more perfect,” Steenari said. “That’s Sioux Falls’ biggest rival, and I was super fortunate to be part of the Force’s run.”

So what made the difference for the Colorado College commit?

“A lot of people talk about confidence, but that’s a major thing,” Steenari said. “It’s hard to get and easy to lose.”

It’s a critical element of any player’s game, but particularly one with Steenari’s aggressive style.

“Merril’s competitiveness and work ethic stand out,” Isenberg said. “A lot of guys don’t like playing against him because he always wants to win. He hates to lose. He always is trying to take the puck away from you, lift your stick, give you a shove. 

“Then you combine that with his shot, which is unbelievable. He has a great snapshot.” 

Steenari’s will to win came in handy during the Force’s playoff run, which concluded vs. Dubuque and another former Jr. Duck, forward Colin Frank. 

“It was intense,” Steenari said. “That was my first time being in real playoff series. It was the hardest hockey I’ve played so far.

“But when the final buzzer sounded, it hits you. All the guys were super excited and happy to do this with each other. It was awesome to see the excitement on everyone’s faces.”

Isenberg Switched Leagues, Tweaked Game

Isenberg’s path also featured some twists and turns. The defenseman stayed with the Jr. Ducks for a season at 18U and captained a team that went to Nationals in 2022

He spent a season with Merritt in the British Columbia Hockey League and committed to the U.S. Air Force Academy. The Falcons coaching staff suggested he transfer to the NAHL, which is how he landed in Lone Star in suburban Dallas this past season. 

“Air Force suggested I go to Lone Star because it’s a great team structure-wise, and a defensive team is what they wanted for my development,” Isenberg said. “I worked all season to improve the defensive side of my game and thought I improved a lot.”

The Brahmas allowed just 109 goals — 16 fewer than the next closest team — in 60 regular-season games, and the defensive sid was where Isenberg shone.

“The team was a close team, and all throughout the regular season our coaching staff prepared us to play playoff hockey,” he said. “By the team we got to the playoffs, we were dialed in. 

“I’m not going to say it was easy, but we were ready.”

While Steenari’s game — scoring, hitting and speed — can jump out, Isenberg said he had to learn the details to prepare himself for college hockey. 

“I worked on shutting players down in the corners, at the lines, boxing out, playing heavier and more physical,” Isenberg said. “It was unbelievable how much work we put in — 2.5 hours per day of practice, an hour of film every day.”

That Isenberg would be part of the backbone of a championship team came as no surprise to his former Jr. Ducks teammate.

“He’s a great part of any back end for a team. He excels on the power play because he moves the puck so well, and he has a great stick when defending,” Steenari said. “He’s a great locker-room guy, a great guy off the ice and a true leader. I’m happy for all the success he had.”

The payoff was worth it. The Brahmas went 9-2 in the playoffs and allowed just 15 goals. They capped the run by outscoring foes 14-4 in three Robertson Cup games.

“Winning it felt unbelievable,” Isenberg said. “So many of our fans came to Minnesota to watch us, all of our families. To have them there was incredible.”

Future Plans Put on Temporary Hold

The duo is also among the roughly 80 Jr. Ducks who have made commitments to NCAA Division I hockey programs. Their connection doesn’t end there, however.

Both players are on track to play collegiately in Colorado, but both learned this past season they will have to wait until 2025 to do so. It’s another form of adversity to battle through.

“I’m looking at the deferment as it gives me the time I need to be the player I need to be for my next step,” Steenari said. “When I go back to Fargo, I want to play in more important situations that I haven’t seen at that level, and I’m all for it.

"Hopefully, I’ll be a better leader for them. I’m excited for the opportunity.”

Isenberg said it initially was disappointing but he came to terms with having his college clock start one year later. 

“Air Force broke it down for me pretty well,” he said. “I’ll spend another year in Lone Star and tune up my offense. There is room to grow that. 

“Air Force wanted me to dial in my defense last season, and I did that. Next season, it’s time to produce a little bit more. It will only help me.”

Having players win championships in two top junior leagues is something the Jr. Ducks are proud of, Kim added.

“A lot of coaches in the organization worked with those players, and it’s good to see their success,” he said. “Merril and Kyle and so many others had the benefit of hearing different voices and getting different guidance and instruction.

“Between the transfer portal and the NCAA granting an extra season for the Covid year, it created a logjam in college hockey. You have to be ready to jump into the lineup and make an impact.

“Merril and Kyle understand this is a process and their diligence is paying off.”