Ben Eaves experienced the national tournament three times as a player.
Now, the retired center and ex-pro will get to experience the big stage from the bench. In his first year as the Culver Academy 16U Tier I head coach, Eaves has guided his guys to the Toyota-USA Hockey National Championships. Culver won the Mid-American District tournament at Ice Castle Arena in Castle Shannon, Pennsylvania, on March 10-13.
“I’m proud of our group and it’s fun when you feel like you’re having some kind of positive influence on the team,” said Eaves, who was part of the first national title for Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in 1999. “And when they go out and play like a team, it just puts a big smile on your face.”
This marks the first time Culver has produced a national team at the 16U level.
“It was just one of those things where we kept on focusing on getting better every day and week to week,” Eaves said. “But at the end of the day, it’s about the group of boys taking ownership of their team and how they’re going to play. I’m really proud of them and where they are right now.”
Culver had a great showing at the district tournament. The squad downed the Pittsburgh Predators 13-1 in the tournament opener and then beat the Pittsburgh Vengeance 6-1. In the evening game, Culver was up 3-2 late when the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite tied it. After a scoreless overtime session, the game was headed to a five-man shootout. Pittsburgh scored on its first attempt and Culver tied it up on its fifth shooter. After Culver goalie Grant Adams stopped the Penguins’ fifth attempt, the teams went back and forth. Culver got to its eight shooter, Cooper Fensterstock, who lit the lamp. Adams stopped the ensuing Penguins Elite shot as Culver pulled out a 4-3 victory.
“We were dead in the water and a young boy went up, Fisher Shea, scored as the fifth shooter to keep us alive,” Eaves said. “We were done, and the boys found a way.”
Adams was big in net all game for Culver.
“He stopped seven straight and about four that could have won the game for them,” Eaves said. “It was a pretty huge thing for us to survive.”
The exciting win in the semifinals gave Culver a high it couldn’t come down from, defeating the Ohio Blue Jackets 4-1 in the championship game.
“We have a young team with 16 first years on our team,” Eaves said. “We just got shellacked the first month and a half — I think we started out 1-7-1. We just kept on getting better and hopefully we’re going to see those same teams again and show how much better we’ve gotten and how far we’ve come. Credit to the boys, the work they put in and the faith they kept and believing in us coaches in what we were trying to do.”
Even though it’s the first time to nationals for Culver, the goal is still to win the tournament.
“The truth is, when you’re at this level any team can beat anyone else, especially at the 16 level, I’ve realized,” Eaves said. “We’ve seen the Mission, we’ve seen Shattuck, we’ve seen Omaha, and right now the way we’re playing, we feel we’re as good as any of those team. It’s a one-game series with whoever you’re playing. We respect everybody, but I don’t think we fear anybody either at this point.”
Penguins Elite 14U Heads to Nationals
After dropping their first game of the district tournament, it was an uphill climb for the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite 14U Tier I team.
However, the Penguins players rallied together and won four-straight games in the Mid-American District tournament to earn the automatic bid to nationals.
“It was a kind of a tester for everyone after losing that first game and we put it back on them to see how they could come together as a team, and it was a group effort from all 19 guys,” Penguins coach Mike Chiasson said.
This will be the first trip to nationals for the 14U Penguins Elite team. Chiasson said his players are really excited.
“I don’t think they realized how big nationals was until they watched Culver play the 16 championship before us and their celebration and their locker room next to us,” Chiasson said. “I think that really sunk into the boys they really had a chance to go to nationals.”
In the five-team district tournament, the Penguins took on a familiar foe in Pittsburgh Penguins Elite (Black), the program’s other 14U team. The Elite Black pulled off a 3-1 win.
“Everyone thought our chances could almost be done after losing out of the gates, so that was a tough one,” Chiasson said. “Everyone in our division ended up going 1-1 in our division on Friday, so some things needed to happen on Saturday on our day off and there was actually a game between the Pittsburgh Black team and Columbus that went to a shootout. That helped us and put the ball back in our court for us to win out and get in.”
The Penguins Elite (26-19-7) came back the next day on Friday, March 11, and downed the Ohio Blue Jackets 6-1. It was a 1-1 game entering the third period when the Penguins erupted for five goals.
The Penguins had Saturday off and beat the Cleveland Barons 6-2 on Sunday morning. Knowing a victory in the final game of the tournament would guarantee a spot at nationals, the Penguins made no mistake about it and took down the Tri-State Spartans 5-0.
The Penguins are playing their best hockey at this point in the year.
“We had a slow start at the beginning of the season and ever since the new year, the boys have really stepped up and played some good hockey,” Chiasson said. “Hopefully it carries into Anchorage.”
Three Years and Running for Culver 18U
For the third year in a row, the Culver Academy 18U Tier I team is headed to nationals.
In 2014, Culver lost a heartbreaking quarterfinal game to end its tournament run. Last year, Culver didn’t make it out of the round-robin portion. This year, Culver has high expectations after winning all four of its games in the Mid-American District tournament on March 13.
Culver (30-8-5) beat the Cleveland Jr. Lumberjacks in the opener 12-2 and followed that up with a 4-2 victory over the Cleveland Barons.
“That was a tough game for us,” Culver coach Steve Palmer said. “They were a pretty physical team, which was great because we like to run-and-gun a little bit and slowed down the game down by playing really hard.”
In the third game, Culver took down the Pittsburgh Esmark Stars 7-3. It was a tight game for the championship as Culver outlasted the eighth-ranked Ohio Blue Jackets 2-1.
“It could have went either way, but we weathered those momentum swings and possessed the puck,” Palmer said. “We made the right choices at the right times and managed the game pretty well being up with 10 minutes to go.”
Culver has some experience on its team with about six players who have been to nationals before, Palmer noted. That big-game experience should be helpful this year as Culver tries to win the title.
“There’s 16 pretty good teams there,” Palmer said. “I think you need to be healthy, you need a couple of bounces. It’s a little tougher on us because we’re a school and we’re on spring break right before the tournament starts, so our kids are all over the country at that point. They do the best they can to stay in a groove, but I think we’re at a little bit of a disadvantage because of that. We’re going to get together for a couple practices and we’ll see what happens.
“At this point, it’s a one-game shot and you’ve got to play your best hockey and you need a couple of bounces. I think we have all the pieces to give it a shot.”
Other Nationals Qualifiers
Also advancing to nationals from the Mid-American District are the Mid-State Mustangs at 18U Tier II and the Pittsburgh Predators at 14U Tier II.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.