MAPLE GROVE, Minn. – Winning a state title after an undefeated regular season is a major accomplishment on its own.
That’s exactly what the Rochester Grizzlies (NY) did before venturing to Minnesota for the 2023 Chipotle-USA Hockey Youth Tier II 18U National Championships.
The Grizzlies’ focus never wavered once they got to Maple Grove, according to coach Jared Blank. They pushed through to the 3A title game, going 5-0, and found themselves against the West Dundee Leafs (IL) who they had previously defeated 7-1 on Thursday.
The rematch between the two teams was a different story, however. Passionate defending, especially late in the game, led by Nathaniel Russo and others was enough to get the 2-1 win for the Grizzlies.
“As loose as these guys were before this game, I was a bundle of nerves,” Blank said. “But they were happy and ready to go and man, they showed it on the ice.
“This is such a happy and spirited bunch, and these guys have been together for forever, even before me. We’ve added pieces throughout the years, and this year everything just hit critical mass and thundered through this season.”
The Grizzlies held a 2–0 lead before Brady Cigrand scored with 4:37 left in the final period. It made for a close finish, especially when Rochester committed two penalties in the span of a minute to give West Dundee a five-to-three-man advantage.
Yet, the Grizzlies were able to hang onto the one-goal advantage all the way to the final buzzer.
“We really just played for each other, and we played for the crest,” Russo said. “We’ve all been together for a while, so we never wanted to be done playing and here we are now.
“This is pretty much our second year [together] and we’ve all been together on different teams before. It just adds so much energy and I can’t wait to celebrate with the boys.”
This title now caps off an historic season for the Grizzlies after a dramatic three weeks. After getting through a tough semifinal contest in their state tournament, Rochester found inspiration to move on and play with freedom again.
The Grizzlies went on the dominate their state final, then they cruised through the competition to Monday afternoon’s title game.
“Since our semifinal game against St. Francis at state, we were really tight,” Blank said. “We really squeezed the heck out of our sticks, only beating them 3–2 after we had beat them by much more than that earlier in the season.
“Ever since that moment, the message has really been, ‘We have nothing to lose. Go out and do your job and have fun.’”
The close-knit bunch on Rochester showed their emotions on full display as the final buzzer rang. Almost tripping over one another as they raced onto the ice, the Grizzlies players didn’t waste any time in going over and celebrating the victory with their family and friends in attendance.
The same message is repeated throughout the squad, from the players to the coaching staff: win this for each other.
“The last words on the bench as we broke the huddle were ‘we owe this to each other guys, let’s finish this,’” Blank said. “As a coach, there’s nothing more I want to hear than that.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.