NEWS: Selects Academy U-18 National

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We are the Champions: U18 Hockey Wins Nationals!

After five consecutive appearances at the USA Hockey National Championships, one of our CCYHA Selects Hockey teams has done it. Our U18s have won the National title! This tournament showcases the top 16 Tier I Midget AAA Youth Hockey teams in the country, and after a season focusing on commitment, emotional balance, belief, and teamwork, our boys achieved their dream.
 

 

It has been a historic year: all three of our CCYHA (Central Connecticut Youth Hockey Association) Selects teams competed at Nationals, with our U15s and U16s making it through multiple rounds to the quarterfinals. Devin Rask, Director of Selects Academy at South Kent School, noted that making it to Nationals in the first place is a great honor: “It is a special achievement only a few experience and the boys earned it. I’m proud of all three teams for making it to Nationals and having success. It's not easy getting there and to have two teams make it to the final eight in the country and the U18s win is awesome.” U16 defenseman Hank McDonough ’20 added that he felt “honored that not only our team, but all three teams had the opportunity to go to Nationals.”
 

The Season: “This is Our Time”

But beyond the thrill of getting to the tournament in the first place (and even going as far as the quarterfinals) Coach Matt Plante of U18 said he was determined for his team to take the title. Starting at the beginning of the season, Plante purposefully set a positive mindset, pushing doubts aside, believing that “this is our time” and “we are in a position to win.” He repeated to his players throughout the season that there was no reason they couldn’t win the National Championship with hard work, perseverance, commitment, and unity. Plante and his coaching staff also placed a focus on managing emotion so that players would stay calm with eyes set on the end game even when falling behind or making a goal. “Win your next shift. If we win the battles; we win the war,” he said. These mantras deeply resonated with the team. U18 forward Michael Gebhardt ’18 said it was helpful for him to remember, “When we made a mistake in the last shift, we would just need to forget the last one and move forward to the next shift we were on.”

This concept is especially important at a physically and emotionally challenging tournament like Nationals. A number of core student-athletes are at least three-year boys at South Kent School and have been together for some time. They were also part of the U16 team that headed to Nationals last year with Coach Plante and lost in the preliminary round against eventual 2017 U16 National Champion Detroit Compuware. The team learned from last year about managing the game and staying level-headed while maintaining focus throughout the entire tournament; not just one game like during the regular season. “We had that commitment for one game, but we needed that same level of commitment for six games at the national tournament,” Plante said. U18 Captain, forward, and Prefect Jake Veilleux ’18 added, “The feeling of losing last year pushed us to go harder this year.”

One way this commitment was achieved was not only through regularly scheduled practices but skill and skating sessions on “off-days.” With the student-athletes going to school together, living together, and playing together, the U18s had a tight-knit team this year. “We’ve been really blessed with not only great players but great human beings. Sure, you need great hockey players, but it’s just as important to have great kids with that buy-in and that impenetrable bond,” Plante said. “We’re a family! We preached, ‘That’s gotta mean something.’ The other teams have terrific hockey players, but do they grind every day together like we do for eight months? I knew if we could stay together like we did all year, we could overcome anything together.”

The team chemistry was strong from the start, with returning guys embracing new teammates while strengthening the bond they already had. Although a powerful group, the team suffered a disappointing loss to Mid Fairfield in the Connecticut State Tournament and did not qualify for the New England Regional Tournament back in November, which meant the automatic bid to Nationals was not an option. Still, “We really did feel, especially as a coaching staff, that this was our time,” Plante said. “I really believed that this team could do it. My concern was: did they believe it? At that time, we had to shift our focus on keeping our dream alive via one of the four at-large selections to the National Tournament,” Plante commented. The coaches kept instilling in their players not to second guess themselves and to ask, “Why shouldn’t this be our time?” And it worked. “We were really playing our best hockey the last five or six weeks left in the season, including throughout the entire USPHL Playoffs. We beat some very good teams, like Northwood, who had previously beaten Shattuck-St. Mary’s earlier in the season.” Using this win to boost the team’s momentum, Plante told them, “When we’re committed, look at the result: we’re dominant; we’re undefeated when we have that level of commitment to a man.”

Not only did the team win the U18 USPHL championship, but they had only five regulation losses in the entire season, only two of which were by more than one goal. Prior to the National Tournament, the team had tee shirts made that read, “The Best is Yet to Come,” a phrase that Coach Plante spoke to his team and parents during the Senior Day Game Ceremony on February 11th, before they won the USPHL championship. Gebhardt said Coach Plante’s words were always in the back of his mind and that the team stayed in each moment, not dwelling on past mistakes. Most of all, they believed: “We never lost hope.”

Nationals

Sure enough, the U18s received one of the at-large invitations to Nationals. But once at Ice Line in West Chester, PA, it was just the beginning. After winning their bracket against the #4 ranked team in the country, Cape Cod Whalers, it was onto the quarterfinals. Every game from that point forward was against a top 10 team (with our CCYHA Selects U18s ranked #2 in the nation), each team made up of “all-stars” from various prep schools throughout New England and Massachusetts. Commitment in place, the strong sense of belief came during the quarterfinal game against #3 ranked Yale Jr. Bulldogs. “They are a great team, and very well coached,” Plante said. “The first period of that game was the only time in the tournament I felt we got dominated. We had to weather their storm and fortunately, we were only down 1-0 at the end of the first period.” He went on to remind his team, “We’re still in a position to win.” He also pointed out the 20-minute periods (as opposed to 17s in the regular season), and that they could take advantage of the additional time to get it back. He urged his team, “We’ve seen their best. They haven’t seen our best yet. We’re going to show them our best.” And that, they did. They fought hard to get the game tied and the game ended in regulation at 1-1 sending the game into overtime. In the first overtime period they outshot Yale 8-0 and eventually, senior captain Jake Veilleux buried the game-winner, moving the team one step closer towards their ultimate goal. The semifinal game faced CCYHA against the #8 ranked Eastern Massachusetts Senators. The U18s got off to a fast start in the first two periods and although our team pulled off a 7-2 win, Plante said, “I give Eastern Mass a lot of credit. They didn’t quit. They made a push at the start of the third period and played their best game.”


 

The Finals: Making History

Now, the stage was set for the National Title game. On Tuesday, April 10, CCYHA would again face a familiar foe, the Cape Cod Whalers. “I think Cape Cod was the best team we played all year,” Plante noted. The first period was a competitive one, but with just over a minute left on the clock, forward Shane Pinto ’18 banged home the rebound from a shot made by defenseman Zac Jones ’19 after Jones made a terrific individual effort to get a shot off, giving CCYHA a 1-0 lead! The crowd went wild, which included not only our U16 team, but also a number of South Kent students and faculty members, who made the trip on fan buses to bring some fan support from home. Dressed in red and black, holding signs, and cheering, the South Kent fanbase was strong.

In the second, Captain forward Kyle Haskins ’18 sniped a feed from Pinto with 3:33 remaining in the period. The goal was created off of great pressure by Pinto on the forecheck. “I think we were tremendous in the second. We were phenomenal in all three zones, especially in our defensive zone,” Plante said. It was important for the team to not celebrate prematurely until the final buzzer, though. “After each goal, Coach Plante went around calming us,” Gebhardt said. It was okay to get excited, but it was vital for each player to keep his head in the game.

Unfortunately, in the third, Cape Cod pushed back and scored 2 goals in just over 11 minutes, bringing the championship game to a nail-biting tie. Still, like they had learned all season, CCYHA remained calm. Immediately taking control after the tie, forward Zach Schrock ’18 scored a rebound shot of his own off a point shot from defenseman Alex Murray ’18 with 6:30 left in the third. Forward Andrew DeCarlo ’19 also picked up an assist on this goal. At this point, it was still anyone’s game and the nerves could be felt throughout the arena. After a huge penalty kill with only 2:26 left in regulation and Cape Cod’s goalie pulled, Pinto was the beneficiary of a fortunate bounce where the puck found its way on his stick and finished off the play skating the puck down and depositing it in the with an empty net, giving CCYHA a 4-2 lead. Amazingly, they weren’t done yet. Veilleux scored another empty-netter, icing the game with a final score of 5-2. As the seconds ticked down, the South Kent School faithful counted the clock down, and as the final buzzer rang out, fans in the stands and players on the ice cheered loudly, knowing that South Kent was bringing home their very first USA Hockey National Championship.

“These 20 kids were absolute warriors this past week. I’m thrilled for them because they have earned this! They deserve this,” Coach Plante emphasized. Defenseman Hunter Toale ’18 said, “It feels good to know all of the hard work over the season and the focus on the little details every day have paid off.” Haskins added, “I feel happy that we finally did it. This core group for the past few years finally achieved our goal and went out on our own terms.” Quite simply, Plante said that the team is “cemented forever.”

Moreover, he gave his thanks to all of the alumni to come before this year’s team. “We are so grateful and appreciative to all our alumni because they are the reason this program is where we are today. Our alums laid the foundation and they are very much a huge part of this.”

This achievement has been years in the making. Plante remembers in the first year of the Selects Academy at South Kent program wondering what it would be like to go to a National Tournament. After suffering several heartbreaking defeats in previous National Tournaments, he wondered what it would be like to win a National Championship.

“Now, I can tell you, it feels absolutely incredible,” he said.


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