MASON CITY — Excellence.

It’s what coach and general manager Todd Sanden demands of the North Iowa Bulls every season. It’s also something the players have taken upon themselves to make sure everyone knows the deal once they get to Mason City to slip on a Bulls uniform.

For the Bulls’ program, it’s been the pillar of their foundation since coming to North Iowa, and there’s no plans of ever stopping.

“The goals here don’t change. And if they do or when they do, it’s time for me to leave,” Sanden said. “If we don’t expect to compete for championships here at every level – at the regular season, the divisional playoffs series rounds, and then to compete for the Silver Cup – then expectations change and I shouldn’t be here.”

For years, the Bulls have been the marquee program of the NA3HL. Last year, however, they took a backseat with an unusual early exit out of the Silver Cup Tournament.

In a stacked league, wins in the league championship are hard to come by. Those returning from that team are hoping to spread that lesson, and make sure they're better when the time comes.

“I think just from the start as soon as I got here and as soon as guys reported, there’s been different mentality,” forward Sean Mallonee, who is starting his third year with the Bulls, said. “Even the logo is different, the colors are different … same tradition same culture, but a different group of guys and a different mindset.

“I think everyone is focused on one goal, but the most important thing is day-by-day – make good decisions and put everything you can into practice and off-ice things. If we’re staying in the moment, I think we’ll be ready come playoff time.”

When the Bulls kick off their season this weekend with a pair of games at Wisconsin, they’ll do so leaning on a handful of veterans like Mallonee to guide the way.

North Iowa returns 12 players from a team which finished 35-10-1-1 a year ago, won the Central Division, and marched through the playoffs to reach the Silver Cup Tournament, where it was bounced after pool play.

Mallonee is the Bulls’ top returner in scoring after racking up 60 points last year (21 goals and 39 assists). The tough part is replacing the three guys statistically ahead of him. Josh Arnold (41 points), Brendan Studioso (33 points) and Mitch Dolter (32 points) are a good place to start. Don’t forget about former Mason City Hockey Club player Lucas McKinnon, either, who is back for his second year with the Bulls.

After that, the rookies will have to step up, Sanden said, in order for the Bulls to continue that excellence.

“No. 1 priority is first getting back to the Silver Cup and doing good through playoffs,” defenseman Jason Miner said. “Then it’s win Silver Cup or bust, basically.”

The goalie situation is another one to watch coming into this season.

Veteran Drew Scites is back to lead the group after playing 11 games with the Bulls last season. Scites was 6-4 with a goals-against average of 2.64.

Behind him are three rookies, including Newman Catholic grad Parker Dondlinger.

Bringing it all together is not something they’re concerned about, though.

“We’ve always kind of had a target on our backs just being the Bulls,” Mallonee said. “It’s not a big change for the returning guys, but I think the new guys will come to learn pretty quickly that a lot of team don’t like playing us because we can make plays, we can play a dirty game if we wanted to, but mostly we like to prove teams wrong on the scoreboard.”