Florida is known for a lot of things – the sun, the sand and the surf – but its youth hockey programs never really received the national attention they deserve.
That’s about to change as the Florida Alliance 15O are competing for their first USA Hockey National Championship thanks to another gritty performance that went the distance, and then some.
Connor Brown and Troy Maldonado scored in the shootout, and Michael Chambre stopped all four shots he faced as the Alliance toppled the Mid Fairfield Rangers to earn a spot in the Tier I 15 Only title game at the 2021 Chipotle-USA Hockey National Championships.
“Our team is used to be in kind of the underdog or the one that just doesn’t get looked at or get the credit that they deserve. We’ve kind of embraced that and we're kind of used to it by now,” said Alliance head coach James Brown.
“I think that’s really helped a lot in the locker room.”
It also helps that this is a battle-tested group that hasn’t enjoyed an easy road to get here. All but one of their games has been decided by one goal, with four being decided in overtime or a shootout.
“Our motto right now is basically let's just get to the shootout because we have some confidence in that,” Brown said after his team’s third straight shootout win.
Alliance managed to generate a fair amount of offensive chances and was finally able to cash in with five seconds left in the opening frame as Lucca Casacci’s centering pass was tipped by Jack Gardner and landed on Cody Sousa’s stick, who buried it for his first goal of the tournament.
Playing against a super-skilled team like the Rangers, which is coached by NHL Hall of Famer Martin St. Louis, the Alliance knew they couldn’t get drawn into a track meet. So Brown devised a game plan to keep one man high in the offensive zone in hopes of limiting opportunities off the rush.
“We’re a team that’s not overly skilled. Our success is based on hard work and team discipline,” Brown said. “At the same time, when you’re playing a team like Mid Fairfield that is so highly skilled, we just tried to pull the reins in a little bit by making sure defensively not to give them any odd-man rushes because those guys are just deadly.”
The plan worked to perfection as the Alliance held Mid Fairfield off the scoreboard until Aram Minnetian scored on a penalty shot.
And when the Rangers managed to generate any offense, Chambre was there to shut the door, stopping 30 shots in regulation and overtime.
“We have that luxury of having two of the best goalies in the country,” Brown said. “Michael’s been on a bit of a hot streak over the past couple of games and we’re just gonna ride him the rest of the way here.”
They say that it’s better to be lucky than good. For the Honeybaked 15 Only team, it's better to be both.
That’s what it takes to take down the top seed in the tournament, which Honeybaked did Sunday afternoon with a hard-fought victory over Chicago Mission, 4-3.
“We have an unbelievable group of kids here. They’re bunch of warriors. They're a true team that finds ways to get it done. They battle for each other and today they showed it,” said Honeybaked head coach Jason Deskins.
This was the third meeting of the year between these Midwest powerhouse programs with both teams winning one earlier in the year. In the rubber match, Anthony Paperi staked Honeybaked to an early lead when he soft shot from the right hashmark surprised Mission goalie Max Weilandt.
“I think their goalie probably wants that one back, but I think they had a couple where they were pretty fortunate,” Deskins said. “It all evens out at the end.”
“But getting that early goal was huge and gave us a lot of momentum.”
The momentum didn’t last long as Michael Buenzow and Jacob Jastrzebski scored 2:06 apart to give Mission the lead.
In the second period, Honeybaked kicked it into another gear to pull away on goals from Charles Cerrato, Brandon Hilton and Jack Willson. That was all the cushion Kenneth Augustine would need as he continued to shine on the national stage.
Of course he had more than a little help from his friends, who sacrificed their bodies to block shots and make plays as Mission pushed for the equalizer after Carter Slaggert cut the lead to one with 2:28 left.
“I tell kids all the time, when we put together a teams the national championship is not really our goal. It’s really hard to do, it’s hard to win,” Deskins said. "No matter what happens, I'm so proud of these kids. They gave every ounce of effort today and I know they’re going to do that tomorrow.”