Hockey has been making inroads in Southern California for decades now, and the sport continues to grow. Just ask the players for Damien High School of La Verne, California who are skating this weekend in the 2023 Chipotle-USA Hockey High School Division I National Championships in Plymouth, Minnesota.
“California hockey is just growing year by year,” said Damien head coach Curtis Fisher. “And it’s getting to a good point.”
In just his third year at the helm, Fisher took Damien to its first California Division 2A state championship after the Spartans finished fourth in the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League and reached the league semifinals.
“I knew we had a really good shot,” Fisher said. “It was a little surprising. They came around at the right time and played good hockey at the right time.”
“I knew we had the talent and the personnel to do it. They pulled it off.”
Never before had Damien, a Catholic all-boys school of 700-plus students, won a hockey league or state championship.
Fisher took over during the pandemic and has quickly brought the program to the top.
“When I took over, it was right after a year when they were really, really at their lowest point,” he said. “It became like a three-year process when I took over until where we’re at now.”
According to Fisher, recruiting was the key piece of the building process.
“I think I just brought in the right kids at the right time,” Fisher said. “That’s half the battle, right? Talking to families, recruiting, and selling your program.”
“It was just bringing in the right kids and making sure [I’m] bringing in high-level players to start it off.”
Fisher, who had joined the program as an assistant coach in 2016, said he wanted to change the culture so that Damien could compete with nearby Orange County schools.
“That was our goal,” he said. “They kind of have a stronghold on the high school leagues back there.”
Because Damien has a number of club players on its roster, the Spartans typically start slowly in the regular season before gathering momentum as the club seasons wrap up and players can commit fully to the high school team.
“That’s when we kind of find our stride at the right time,” Fisher said. “It really makes a difference when we have our full team.”
This year Damien, which has only four seniors, relies on a strong junior class.
“It’s kind of taken on the load now,” Fisher said. “I knew we were going to be better. They bought into each other at the right time. I think that’s the big reason why they became successful.”
Damien began its first national championships appearance Thursday (March 23) with a 6-4 victory over Walter Johnson of Maryland before dropping a 4-3 decision to North Broward Prep (Florida). The team faced Yorktown of Virginia in its final preliminary-round game Saturday, earning a 4-2 win."
“It’s been a great experience so far, great atmosphere,” Fisher said ahead of the Yorktown game. “We’re just kind of that dark horse that no one really expected. It’s something we’ll never forget.
“The fact that we even won a nationals game, it’s a big deal to the school and the program.”
Fisher said his players overcame early jitters to respond well on this national stage.
“They’re kind of new to this,” he said. “They’re actually handling it pretty maturely. It’s all business, which I’m really happy to see.”
The experience won’t end with high school nationals for Fisher, assistant coaches Mike Weekley and Spencer McLay and three of their players. They are also part of the Rose City Pats team that will compete in the Chipotle-USA Hockey Youth Tier II 16U National Championships in Amherst, New York March 30-April 3.
“We’re not even going home,” Fisher said. “It’s a good problem to have. That’s what we’ve been saying. It’s pretty surreal, for sure.”
This highly successful season has provided a big boost to both programs. Fisher understands that his players will enter next season with targets on their backs.
“It’s gotten a lot of momentum, I notice,” Fisher said. “I’m getting a lot of emails and phone calls. It put us on the map, for sure. A lot of parents want to kind of get in on this and see what we’re about.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.