In 2014, the USA Eagles Tier II 14U youth team carried a bull’s-eye on its back.
The Eagles, based in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, lived up to the hype and won the national title. That group of 1999 birth year players have moved up an age level and paved the way for the next Eagles class.
The 2001 kids are now having to live up to their predecessors’ weighty accomplishments. The Eagles head into this year’s Toyota-USA Hockey National Championships with similar expectations for themselves.
“They’ve been sort of chasing the trail of that ’99 team since they were mites,” said Eagles 14U coach Tod Hartje, who also coached the 2014 national championship team. “Being two years behind that ’99 team, the ’01s have been following that same course and now have a chance to do.”
Hartje doesn’t believe this year’s players have a difficult time playing in the shadows of their elder statesmen.
“I think it’s given them a real-life example if you trust in what we’re doing, if you trust the process, and you just worry about what you’re doing today that the future can take care of itself,” Hartje said. “Having that sort of role model team to follow has really been good because we’ve been able to get everyone to understand that things will work out.”
Everything worked out nicely for the Eagles at the state tournament at the Brownstown Sports Center on March 4-6.
By luck of the draw, the Eagles were pitted against the archrival Oakland Jr. Grizzles in the opening game. With the Eagles up 2-1 late in regulation, the Grizzles pull their goalie and netted the game-tying goal. It went to a shootout and the Grizzles captured a 3-2 victory.
The next two games were also identical 3-2 scores with the Eagles coming out on top against the Alpena Thunder Bay Wrecks and the Saginaw Jr. Spirit.
“It was good, competitive games and we knew it would be,” Hartje said. “The top four teams in the state tournament were all in our bracket the way it was seeded.
“Once they got through that set of games, some calm — if that’s the right word — settled in and they believe that, yep, we’re going to take it.”
In the semifinals, the Eagles downed the Calumet Ice Kings 5-1. That set up a rematch with Oakland. The Grizzles scored the first goal of the game, but then the Eagles took over. The Eagles tallied a 5-1 victory as the Grizzles were limited to just 10 shots on goal.
The Eagles (47-12-5) have been playing well all season. The team played some of the top 10 teams in Tier II and also faced off against good Tier I competition.
It’s a strong balance of offense and defense that make the Eagles a tough team for opponents to stop.
“We play a good two-way game,” Hartje said. “We’re really a strong team in all three zones. We don’t give up a lot of goals, but we find a way to score.”
Hartje calls his team depth and having 15 capable skaters and three interchangeable lines as a major asset. Hartje plays all his kids because he knows they can handle every situation.
“I don’t do that because Johnny will get to win a participation trophy,” Hartje said. “It’s because our team truly is a collection of kids that are all good hockey players that all have learned the game and understand what it is they’re supposed to do. We don’t rely on one player.”
Hartje uses a total of four defensemen with his three lines. Cam Beckwith, Dalton Kujat, Jacob Plizga and Jack Luer have all played fantastic at the blue line for the Eagles.
“The four D are really the strength of our team, defensively and offensively,” Hartje said. “We have a good combination of defensemen that can play with skill and with speed and forwards that will cover for them. So when they go, we can rotate.”
Hartje’s daughter, Elle, has also been a major contributor this season. In 2014 when the Eagles won the national title, Hartje’s other daughter, Sasha, was on the team.
In order for youngest Hartje to win a national title like her sister, dad said his team needs to play its best one shift at a time.
“The team’s going in with the attitude that somebody’s going to win the title and there’s no reason that it’s not our team,” Hartje said. “We talk about winning a championship is hard. It takes skill, effort and luck, and that’s just what happens. Going in, if you look at who teams are going to be able to have to take out to win it, I tell the kids, ‘Look, I’d rather be in your position. I’d rather be the team that’s No. 1 that everyone else has to prove they can beat.’”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.