CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — It wasn’t a single player carrying the load, or an overpowering offense piling up goals that allowed the Ohio Blue Jackets to win their first 15-Only USA Hockey Mid-American District Tournament title.
Nine different players scored goals over the four-game run in the tournament, including Jonathan Sonedecker and Jackson Dickson in the championship-clinching 2-0 win against Pittsburgh Penguins Elite in the first of four district finals played Sunday at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
“This team all year has had the most success with a team game,” Ohio coach Ed Gingher said. “We’ve got some really talented players — but they have all bought into the effort with and without the puck, and that’s been fun for us.”
Eleven of the 12 forwards listed on the Ohio roster had at least one point over the four victories over the weekend (including 5-3 against the Cleveland Barons, 2-1 against the Esmark Stars and 4-2 against Tri-State).
Sonedecker, Mason LaBel, Kyle Mead and Brandon Paluszak each had two goals during the tournament for Ohio, which advanced to the 2020 Chipotle-USA Hockey Youth Tier I 15-Only National Championships April 1-6 in Plymouth, Michigan. LeBel, Mead and Trevin Ehrie tallied three points.
Gingher described the line of John Kneidel, Dickson and Mason Hackett as the Blue Jackets “pulse.”
“They were our heartbeat,” Gingher said. “They are the ones who will take the others to the trenches. In a game where it’s so tight checking and it’s a battle, those are the guys that take us to the hard areas.”
Goalie Justin Ennis allowed one goal over his two starts for the 15-Only Blue Jackets, including a shutout in the title game.
“He was just in control, you know?” Gingher said. “He was just solid, he was composed. He made the easy saves look easy — and he made a couple timely ones look easy, too, which was great.”
Said Ennis: “The team played phenomenal in front of me. Without their help of opening lanes, blocking shots and playing physical, we couldn’t have had the outcome we had.
“A shutout was the cherry on top. Our team has been working hard all year to accomplish championships like these. It took all 20 guys, and I am proud of how our team represented the program this weekend.”
Esmark repeats in 18U
For the second consecutive year, the Esmark Stars won the 18U Mid-American championship. Esmark is headed back to Nationals after a 3-1 win against Gilmour Academy in the title game Sunday.
“I think our expectations are a little bit different this year,” Stars head coach David Kosick said. “We want to go out there to win it. Not just to enjoy the scenery and be joyous, like, ‘Hey, we made it to Nationals.’ We want to try to win the tournament.”
Almost half the Esmark roster was part of last season’s run, and a handful of players have played together since they were crowned 2018 16U Mid-American champions.
“This is just unbelievable,” said goalie Connor Strobel, who started three of the four wins in the tournament. “This is what we set our minds to at the beginning of the year. It’s awesome.”
Sunday, the Stars appeared to take a 1-0 lead less than a minute into the game — but the goal was ultimately waved off.
What could have been a disheartening or frustrating weight to carry throughout the championship contest was largely brushed off by Esmark. An Edward Pazo goal seven minutes later gave the Stars a lead they would not relinquish.
“We stayed focused,” Kosick said. “It was a spirited game. We have quite a rivalry with [Gilmour].”
Tyler Stewart scored the other two goals of the title game to give him 10 points for the tournament. Dominic Dezort, Dustin Geregach, Dalton Swartz and Alexander Walker each had two goals over the four-game weekend for the Stars.
This year’s Tier I 18U nationals are April 1-6 in Rochester, Michigan.
Cleveland Barons win 14U
Artem Stepaniants and Neal Bartone scored, Matthew Wiess made 32 saves and the Cleveland Barons 14U team held on for a 2-1 victory against Pittsburgh Penguins Elite.
“Our team went through a lot of hard times in terms of injuries all year – and they just kept fighting, fighting, fighting to where at the end of the year, they peaked at the right time and they came here ready to play,” Barons coach Robert Krosky said. “They came out with a goal this year of getting to districts and winning districts — and they accomplished it.”
Next up is the Chipotle-USA Hockey Tier I 14U National Championships April 1-6 in Chicago, Illinois. According to Krosky, this is the first time a Barons team has won a district title since 2016.
Both Barons goals came in the second period, the latter by Bartone was assisted by Zackary Hoyt. The Barons were outshot, 10-1, in the third period but a desperate host team could manage only an Ian Emery goal with 3:54 left.
“In today’s game our goaltender, Matthew Wiess, was phenomenal,” Krosky said. “He made some amazing saves.”