Top-tier talents

Two years ago, Minot’s Mason Morelli and Bottineau’s Cody Longie squared off for the first time in their high school careers.

Now, the former West Region opponents are teammates on the Fargo Force of the United States Hockey League, a Tier I junior hockey program.

Morelli played his only year of high school hockey as a sophomore at Minot High, while Longie skated four years with Bottineau-Rugby. The two went head to head twice during Morelli’s sophomore season, with Longie, a junior, getting the upper hand in both contests. The Braves posted 7-3 and 5-1 victories over the Magicians that season. Longie recorded three assists in those contests, while Morelli tallied a goal and an assist.

Two years later, Morelli is glad Longie is a teammate and no longer an opponent.

“It’s awesome,” Morelli said. “He’s a great guy. He’s really nice on and off the ice and he is a good asset to the team.”

Through seven games this season, the Force are 3-4. Fargo hosts the USA-Under 18 team at 7:05 p.m. Friday.

Morelli’s road through Minot

Morelli played for three Minot-based hockey programs in three years before making Fargo’s 24-man roster this season. At 17 years old, Morelli is the fourth-youngest member of the Force.

“It was very special to say the least,” Morelli said. “Being from North Dakota and being able to play in the same state, it really means a lot to me.”

The forward wasted little time making an impact with his new team. Morelli netted the game-winning goal in the Force’s home opener, scoring 53 seconds into the third period of a 3-2 victory against Sioux City (Iowa).

“That was probably one of the most special moments in my career,” Morelli said. “It was nice with the home crowd and being able to score that goal was awesome and very special.”

The Force’s third-overall pick in 2012 has appeared in six of the team’s seven games this season, recording a goal and six shots. Morelli, who played 69 games with the Tier II Minot Minotauros of the North American Hockey League, said the biggest difference between the NAHL and the USHL is the Tier I league is faster and more offensive-minded.

“We like what we see so far,” Fargo coach John Marks said. “There’s definitely room for growth. Not too many kids come into this league and tear it up. I know right now, the confidence level and the speed of the game is a step more than what they’re used to. A good athlete will adapt, but they have to put the time in. Nothing comes easy.”

Prior to joining Fargo, Morelli spent his hockey career in his hometown, playing for the Minot Marauders, Minot High School and the Tauros in a span of three years. As a freshman, Morelli played for the Marauders, Minot’s A1 Bantam program, before joining Minot High the following year.

In one season with the Magicians, Morelli recorded 40 points (22 goals, 18 assists) in 26 games as MHS finished the season 14-13 and placed sixth at the state tournament. He joined the Tauros less than a week later, playing in 11 games.

A fan favorite, Morelli played 58 games with the Tauros last season, recording 28 points (12 g, 16 a) and helping Minot reach the postseason for the first time in program history.

Marks said the extra year in the NAHL has paid dividends.

“To me he looks a little bigger, a little stronger on the ice compared to where he was last year,” Marks said. “He has more confidence. He’s finding his way.”

Morelli said he still contacts members of the Tauros on a weekly basis. Earlier this season, Morelli squared off with former teammate and current Des Moines (Iowa) goaltender Ryan Ruck. The Force won the game 3-2 in a shootout, but Morelli didn’t record a shot on Ruck.

As he continues to gain experience at the Tier I level, Morelli hopes to become a go-to option for the Force.

“I want to be one of the main offensive producing guys and one of the main factors on the offensive side,” Morelli said.”

Transition season for Longie

Longie, a third-round pick by the NAHL’s Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild in this year’s draft, said he never thought he’d play for the Force when he went to their three-day tryout camp this spring. As a member of the Force, Longie not only has to adjust to the skill level and quickness of the USHL, but the switch from defenseman to forward.

“It’s going good so far,” Longie said. “It’s day-by-day. I’ve never played forward in my life so it’s different. You need to know your offense, but you still need to work on defense.”

Longie was third in the state in scoring as a senior with 63 points (26 goals, 37 assists). He amassed 124 points (39 g, 85 a) in 99 games with Bottineau-Rugby and went 65-32-2 with two state tournament appearances.

“We knew of him,” Marks said. “I think he’s just a raw talent. He skates pretty well and has decent hands. He’s a rather quiet person, that’s just his personality. That’s got to come out of him. He’s one of those kids that’s trying to fit in, trying to find his way. You can see he has potential.”

Longie’s move from Bottineau (2,200 people) to Fargo (106,000) was made easier by Morelli’s presence.

“It’s good because coming into Fargo, I didn’t expect to know anybody, so I was pretty pumped,” Longie said.

The differences between playing in Bottineau and Fargo stretch beyond the population. With 180 students enrolled at Bottineau High School, the hockey team lacked depth. Longie was one of just five defensemen for the Braves. Therefore, he was on the ice for the majority of games. Fargo’s roster rolls four lines of defensemen.

“We have eight defenseman here right now,” Marks said. “He was working hard in practice and felt he deserved to play. It doesn’t hurt to play another position.”

Marks knows a thing or two about switching positions. Marks played defenseman throughout his years in Bantam, Midget and at the University of North Dakota, where he was a two-time All-American. A first-round draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, Marks spent the first couple years as a defenseman before being moved to right wing. He finished his NHL career with 275 points (112 g, 163 a).

“Coaching is way different,” Longie said. “It’s more intense each day. They get on you when you make mistakes. it makes you want to work harder and impress them and get more playing time.”

Longie hasn’t recorded a point in the four games he’s played, but Marks likes what he sees out of the Bottineau native.

“This league is hard to go from high school to the USHL,” Marks said. “He’s working hard. I truly believe he’s earned a chance to play. He can skate and handle the puck. I think he’s going to be fine, but again it’s a process. I like his attitude and his work ethic.”

Mike Kraft covers high school athletics, the Minot State University men’s club hockey team and the Minot Minotauros. Follow him on Twitter @MKraft23_MDN.