PLANO, Tex. — For much of early Monday afternoon, things looked dire for the Cheektowaga (New York) Warriors in their 3A division final against the Highland Park (Illinois) Falcons in the 2019 Chipotle-USA Hockey Youth Tier II 16U National Championships at the Plano StarCenter.
After one period, the Highland Park Falcons, who had only allowed one goal in the tournament heading into Sunday, led 2-0 thanks to goals by Jacob Ratner and Tyler Hoberg.
At the end of two, Highland Park led 3-1. The Falcons then made it 4-1 when John Babnik scored 1:15 into the final frame.
However, that was when the seeds for an epic Cheektowaga comeback were sown.
“When you’re at that point in a game, you’re down 4-1 and you’re wondering what could happen,” Cheektowaga head coach Tony Pierino said. “You just got to keep it positive and you got to keep going after your opponent. Just keep going to the end. They did and it paid off for them.”
The Warriors responded with three goals within 4:13 including two 10 seconds apart to stun the Falcons, tie the game and eventually force overtime and a shootout. Cheektowaga went 2-for-3 in the shootout to prevail 5-4.
Cheektowaga’s victory sends Pierino, who is retiring after 35 years, out a winner.
“Yeah, you can’t write a book on this one. I’ve had a great career,” Pierino said. “I run the Cheektowaga hockey program for the town, and I’ve loved every minute of it. It was kind of surreal though [Sunday], getting a lot of texts from former players from 20 years ago, texting me and saying you got this coach, you can do this. That was amazing. It’s just perfect to wrap it up like this.”
Jaden Riley opened the Warrior offensive with a power-play goal at 7:44 of the third. Daniel Tocco followed 10 seconds later.
With 5:03 remaining in regulation, Christopher Heitzhaus delivered the equalizer from the right circle, again with Cheektowaga on the power play.
In the shootout, Bryson Miller, Cheektowaga’s first shooter, scored on a backhand and Riley followed suit, making the Warriors two out of two.
Cheektowaga goaltender Joshua Ruffner turned away all four Falcons shootout attempts, this after turning away 47 shots in regulation as Highland Park outshot Cheektowaga 51-32 but still lost.
“Joshua Ruffner has been stellar. The kid has performed anytime you’ve asked him,” Pierino said. “He’s such a mild-mannered kid too, which is kind of cool. He’s perfect for the game. Very well-skilled and he’s there to compete every time.”
The Warriors, who have now won 18 straight dating back to their last loss in September 2018, have clearly shown a flair for dramatic finishes these past two days.
Late Sunday afternoon, Cheektowaga got a shorthanded goal from Miller, a tally which came with the Warriors down two men on a 5-on-3 for the Sylvania (Ohio) North Stars and ended up being the game-winner in a 2-1 victory which sent them into Monday’s final.
And Monday’s comeback is one which had to be seen firsthand to truly be believed.
“The ‘Cardiac Kids’ they call us I guess, you know? It’s a team that just shows you it’s got heart. That’s something you can’t teach nowadays,” Pierino said. “When you’re down 4-1 and never give up, never show negativity or any type of attitude like that, that says something for a 16-year-old kid.”
Despite this being his swan song behind the Cheektowaga bench, a humble and self-deprecating Pierino was quick to deflect any credit for the dramatic victory away from where he felt it truly belongs, with his talented and cohesive group of players.
“I’m just happy for the boys. They deserve this,” Pierino said. “This is for them. This isn’t for me. This is my last year. I’m done after 35 years of coaching. This is for the town of Cheektowaga and for the city of Buffalo. I’m really thrilled for these boys. You’re teaching them a life lesson here.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.