CHESTERFIELD, MO. – The storyline of the Cherry Creek High School hockey program comes close to the impossible.
Three years ago it didn’t exist. Two years ago it won two games. This year, there’s nobody better.
The Denver-area based school capped its season with a 2-1 victory over Dubuque (Iowa) on Monday to claim the Toyota-USA Hockey High School Combined Division National Championship. Cherry Creek’s final victory of the season came about two weeks after it won the Colorado state title and just three years after resurrecting a program dormant for 25.
“This team played just amazing,” said senior goalie Brady Mielnicki. “I mean at the beginning of the season, no one would have first thought we’d win state and then second even come close to winning the national championship.”
The combined division pitted teams that draw players from more than one high school. It was the first time in the six-year history of the high school national championships that those schools were invited to compete for a national title.
Cherry Creek is the largest of seven high schools in the Cherry Creek School District that encompasses a large chunk of the southeastern corner of the metro area. Five of the seven schools have full athletic programs, but the hockey program is open to students from anywhere in the district.
It won the state title with a 3-2 triple overtime win March 7 over Monarch, which stunned top-ranked Regis Jesuit in the semifinals. Regis, about a 17-minute drive from Cherry Creek, rebounded to win the Toyota-USA Hockey High School Pure Division Championship.
Senior Chris Nitchen led Cherry Creek with nine points, including six of its 29 goals. Mielnicki had a save percentage of .935, fifth best of any goaltender in the tournament.
Cherry Creek opened pool play with a 3-0 win against McKinney (Texas) on Thursday, followed by a 3-1 victory over Waterloo (Iowa) and a 7-2 drubbing of Lincoln Way (Illinois). Cherry Creek cruised past Greenville South (South Carolina) 8-1 in the quarterfinals and won a 6-4 semifinal game to get past Manatee (Florida).
The Dubuque Devils had several good chances in the final moments of the championship game but couldn’t get the tying goal, completing the Cherry Creek turnaround.
The remarkable rebirth of the program began with its closure in 1986. The decade saw hockey devolve into something that sometimes didn’t resemble the sport it purported to be.
“There was a lot of fighting and all that stuff,” coach Jeff Mielnicki said. “The school said, ‘We don’t want any part of it.’ So they got out.”
District leadership waited until the viability of the sport proved itself and reinstated it for the 2012-13 season. The school won two times the first year back before Jeff Mielnicki, the school’s longtime baseball coach and father of Brady Mielnicki, took over for the 2013-14 season.
He led the team to the semifinals in his first season and the state title this year.
Nitchen, who didn’t play the first year of the program, said the coaching change convinced him and several of his teammates to try out. Jeff Mielnicki coached many of the players in youth hockey and brought a different perspective from the first year of the team’s resurrection.
“The cultural change is just insane,” Nitchen said.
The ascent can’t be humbled down. Despite both Brady Mielnicki and his dad downplaying their respective impact on the program, the fact remains the program didn’t exist four years ago.
Now, by virtue of the other national title winner coming from the same state in which Cherry Creek won its state crown, the “combined” team has a strong argument it’s without an equal peer in the nation.
“Yeah, it’s very impressive,” Brady Mielnicki said. “We had a slow first year and then got a coaching change and kept going in a straight incline up and getting better and better the next two years.”
Cherry Creek just didn’t get better. It became the best.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.