by Matt Gajtka
ROCHESTER, Mich. — With four seconds left in Monday’s 16-and-under USA Hockey national championship game and his Bishop Kearney Selects team up 3-1, Dan Collins called timeout.
But even though the ensuing faceoff was in the defensive zone, it was all but impossible for the Long Island Gulls to score twice and spoil the party.
In other words, this wasn’t about tactics. This was about recognition of what was about to happen. In a sport that seldom allows its participants to catch their breath, the head coach of the BK Selects 16Us gave his players the opportunity to savor the moment before The Moment.
“As a coach it was one of those things you dream about,” said Collins, still grinning 15 minutes after his team won Bishop Kearney High School’s first national hockey crown.
“At that moment they needed to know that they were about to win a national championship,” Collins continued. “It was a special moment for us to enjoy it together. Understanding the work we put in, (and) that we were about to get there. That’s what that was for. It was awesome.”
After the most raucous 60 seconds you’ll ever see from a team that hadn’t yet technically won, the puck was dropped and hacked safely to the end boards.
Officially, at a few minutes before noon, they had done it.
And gloves and sticks weren’t the only things that fell to the playing surface at Suburban Ice Rochester.
“I started bawling,” forward Matthew Lee (Fort Erie, Ontario) said. “Being out there with my brothers … Our thing was to be a family this year. To go in the (dressing room) and celebrate with gold medals on our necks, it was awesome.”
Ironically, the 16Us were the only BK Selects squad — boys or girls — to not win a New York state title last month. Collins’ bunch needed a (much-deserved) at-large bid to make it to America’s top youth hockey showcase.
“This year we didn’t even win states, so that’s the chip on our shoulder,” said goalie Paul Dalessio (Burlington, Mass.) after stopping 29 shots in the final. “It’s so special. We’ll never forget it.”
After arriving in this northern suburb of Detroit last week, the team known as the Rochester Saints for USA Hockey purposes swept their round-robin group, collecting wins against the Yale Jr. Bulldogs, Arizona Jr. Coyotes and Boston Jr. Eagles. The first of those came in overtime, with defenseman Josh Player (Thorofare, N.J.) scoring in the final minute of sudden death.
That portended the tight battles to come in the single-elimination portion of the 16-team tournament.
BK edged Culver Military Academy, 2-1, in Saturday’s quarterfinals, guarding the lead for 2 1/2 periods. Goalie Florian Wade (Anchorage, Alaska) denied 25 shots, including 14 in a batten-down-the-hatches third period. That allowed Mikey Bartkowski’s (Fort Mills, S.C.) short-handed tally late in the first to hold up as the winner.
The script was much less tidy in the semis, when Chicago Mission rallied from two goals down after two periods to force overtime. But it didn’t take BK long to rebound, as Lee set up Christian Humphreys (Pittsburgh, Pa.) for a nifty finish and a berth in the national championship.
Christian Humphreys with the OT winner for the Rochester Saints! 👀#USAHNationals pic.twitter.com/s5VkxddSMe
— USA Hockey (@usahockey) April 3, 2022
“I think getting knocked out of states motivated us to do all we can do to win a national championship,” said Humphreys, who led the 16Us in scoring this season after getting bumped up from the 15O team last fall.
For all the talk of using a previous failure for motivation, a success might have actually been more impactful for the 16Us — at least when it came to the last game. Back in February, BK defeated the Gulls in the final of the Northeast Pack playoffs, successfully protecting a one-goal lead in the third period.
This time, BK was in front for the final two frames, after scores from Jack Plandowski (Halifax, Nova Scotia) and Owen King (Webster, N.Y./Providence) in quick succession overcame an early 5-on-3 goal for Long Island. Plandowski redirected a Player shot during a power play, then about a minute later, Nicholas Shaw (Fulton, N.Y.) stole the puck in the neutral zone and sent King away on a partial breakaway.
Remarkably, the 16Us didn’t allow a single odd-man rush the rest of the way, and defenders did a wonderful job fending off Gulls attackers intent on bulling their way to the net.
“It was comedy,” Lee said of the familiarity between the final combatants. “We knew their system. They knew ours. It just came down to details.”
Dalessio was rock-solid throughout, but much to his teammates’ credit, he didn’t have to come up with anything spectacular to preserve the lead. By the time Brendan Boring (Waxhaw, N.C.) guided home an empty-netter with a minute to play, the virtuoso defensive performance was complete.
“They did exactly what we asked,” Collins said. “We had to take (the Gulls’) number one option away, which is to get to the interior. The boys bought in and packed in the house. Ultimately, when you’re up, you shouldn’t be giving leads back if you’re focused.
“We knew that’s how the game would end up being, so I’m not asking them to change anything. I was asking them to execute exactly what we’ve talked about. Very, very happy for these guys that they got that reward at the end for all that hard work.”
Allowing just eight goals in six games, the 16Us (44-16-8) were indeed playing their best structural game at the most important time of the season. Lee (3g, 4a) and Humphreys (2g, 5a) co-paced the team in points across the tourney, while captain King was the top finisher with five goals.
“Throughout this tournament, we’ve been the most structured team defensively,” Humphreys said. “After getting up 2-1, all of us knew we were going to win the championship. Same thing happened in the Northeast (Pack) playoffs. We knew we didn’t need any more offense, so everyone was back-tracking.”
It all added up to a national championship in just the second year of the BK Selects boys program, a remarkable achievement for all involved.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” defenseman Lenny Greenburg (El Segundo, Calif.) said. “This year, from the start, this was our goal. We knew we could make it here and win it, and it feels awesome.”
And as has been the case throughout the season when a BK Selects team went deep in a tournament, the black-and-red cheering section included a healthy contingent of players and coaches from squads who had been previously eliminated.
Not that those teams had anything to be ashamed of. The 18Us made the quarterfinals in the same rink before getting knocked out by second-ranked Mount St. Charles — another Northeast Pack rival — while the 15Os and 14Us each reached the semis, losing to Shattuck-St. Mary’s teams in Plymouth, Mich., and Chicago, respectively.
Long range snipe to win the game!!! Ryan Santiago scores with 2 seconds left to carry the Rochester Saints to the #USAHNationals semi’s!
#TrainEatRepeat | @ChipotleTweets pic.twitter.com/IgMaNPUSNL
— USA Hockey (@usahockey) April 2, 2022
“Just incredible,” said 15O head coach and Director of Boys Hockey Chris Collins. “You’ve got four teams competing at the highest level, it’s an incredible feat. The only team that didn’t win states, won nationals.
“It’s massive in Year 2 of the program. You can’t describe it.”
Indeed, only perennial powerhouse Shattuck-St. Mary’s could match Bishop Kearney’s total of four teams in the national tournament. The 16Us might’ve been the only BK Selects squad to carry hardware back to western New York, but they weren’t the only squad to make a statement.
Plus, the players who’ll return to campus in August will carry the knowledge of what it’s like to try to bring your best hockey when all eyes are on you, from friends and family to hundreds of scouts from the NHL, NCAA and high-level juniors.
“There’s nothing like the nationals aura,” said 18U bench boss and Director of Player Placement David Arduin. “It’s the best teams in the country and then there’s the (pressure) of trying to win it. There’s nothing quite like it.”
The same could be said for the taste of a national title. Not that it doesn’t take its toll. Dan Collins had the look of a man just crossing the finish line of a marathon — a marathon that went extremely well, but a marathon nonetheless.
“I’m exhausted,” he said with a laugh. “I feel like I’ve been here a month. I always feel like I’ve been through it all, but for this, you feel the nerves. Everything was as heightened as it possibly could be, but as a competitor, that’s why you play.
“For me, for the players, everything, that’s why we wanted to be here.”
They’re here, alright, but the BK Selects grand plan is to stay here.
So far, so great.
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