INDIANAPOLIS — Few expected the Cleveland Barons 16-and-Under team to capture the Mid-American Tier I district title over the weekend, but there they were Sunday celebrating at center ice after four games inside The Forum at Fishers.
The Barons’ 3-1 victory over Culver Academy concluded a dominating weekend sparked by its defense and solid goaltending led by Jim Thomas. Cleveland gave up just two goals in the tournament, the second coming with a minute left in the third period of the championship game.
Not getting the third shutout of the tournament was about the only disappointment for Thomas and his team.
“Man, I thought I had it but it just slipped in right by the post,” Thomas said of Culver’s goal with 1:02 left in the game, cutting the Barons’ lead to 2-1.
The Barons, though, scored an empty-net goal about 30 seconds later to seal the victory.
“All I was thinking about the whole time was making it to nationals,” Thomas said. “I was just trying to do everything I could to get us there.”
The win clinched a berth into the USA Hockey National Championships on April 3-7 in Pittsburgh.
The Cleveland Barons 16U team had reached the national championships for the past two years, but they started this season with a new squad. Captain Gordie Myer was the only leftover from those district title teams, and the inexperience showed early as the Baron struggled to win games.
“This championship is really satisfying because of what we had to overcome,” said Myer, who scored the go-ahead goal early in the third period. “Our team hasn’t been as strong as it has been in the past two years so we really had to work hard to get here. We had to really come together as a team.”
Myer had offers to play with other teams this season but decided to stick it out with the Barons. He said Cleveland coach Brett Harkins and his staff really made the difference for him.
“I really like the coaches and the team,” Myer said. “I had played with them for this long, so I wanted to come back for one more year and see what we could do.”
Harkins said his team is playing its best hockey of the season going into nationals. He said the Barons’ defense has been at its best. Culver Academy scored 21 goals going into the finals against Cleveland before the Barons nearly shut them out.
Defense and goaltending was critical in the second period. Culver turned up the heat offensively and peppered Thomas with numerous shots on goal, only to see them all rejected, allowing the Barons to hang on to the lead.
“Culver dominated us in the second period and I thought Jim kept us in the game,” Harkins said. “They were all over us, but Jim kept making big saves and he’s been solid for us all season. At the end of the second period, I told the team that Jimmy kept us in it now let’s go and get it.”
Myer said the Barons’ defense has been solid all year long, but overcoming the second period gave them the momentum to finish off the game.
“With this team, we play defense first and concentrate on getting the puck out of the zone,” Myer said. “I think that creates good offense for us. We take a lot of pride in working hard on the defensive end and winning all of the personal battles. That’s what wins games for us. It helped us beat Culver.”
Harkins said the district title has forced him to change his vacation plans.
“I was on my way to Marco Island, Fla.,” Harkins said with a laugh. “I guess I will be spending my time in Pittsburgh. It’ll still be a good vacation.”
The Barons have found some success in nationals, but they have not been able to come up with the coveted title. Last year, Cleveland lost in the quarterfinals and in 2011 it was the semifinals, both times to the eventual national champions.
“We know whoever beats us will probably win nationals,” Harkins said. “We will have to work hard over the next two weeks. Guys just want to go on and win a national championship. My goal is to move them on to the next level so they can be successful.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
Youth Tier I
14U: Indiana Jr. Ice
16U: Cleveland Barons
18U: Cleveland Barons
Girls' Tier I
14-U: Pittsburgh Penguins Elite
16-U: Team Pittsburgh
19-U: Team Pittsburgh
Girls' Tier II
16-U: Steel City Selects
19-U: Columbus Blue Jackets