INDIAN TRAIL, N.C. – The players of Michigan’s 14U USA Eagles made their final game a memorable one Monday at the Extreme Ice Center.
The USA Eagles scored late in the third period, then held off a frantic last-minute rush by the St. Lawrence (New York) Thunder for a 4-3 victory in the 3A final at the Toyota-USA Hockey Youth Tier II 14U National Championships.
It was the second 14U national championship in three years for the USA Eagles, who won their first 3A title in 2014 in Hackensack, New Jersey.
“It influenced this bunch every day — every day,” USA Eagles head coach Todd Hartje said. “For three years prior to the ‘99s winning [the 2014 title], they practiced together. We’d have joint practices, and we’d keep talking about them.
“We’d tell them, ‘Hey guys, you keep wanting to get your game up; well, that team in front of you is doing it.’ Then when they won the nationals, we were able to say to these guys, ‘You’re right in their footsteps — you’ve got to stay the course, you’ve got to do the hard work, and it’s there.’
“Every day, we talked about it — that [2014 championship] banner is hanging right above their bench during practice.”
Multi-role player Jack Luer scored the game-winning goal for the Eagles, slotting home a cross from forward Parker Williams on a power play with 2 minutes, 25 seconds remaining in the third period.
The power play was set up by a rare Thunder mistake — 15 seconds earlier, they were whistled for having too many players on the ice during a shift change.
The Thunder — which advanced to the 14U Class 3A finals in 2012 and 2013, and lost to the Eagles in the semifinals in 2014 — had killed a power-play opportunity late in the second period.
What Hartje learned from that he used in setting up the play that resulted in Luer’s game winner.
“We were able to get it deep and work it around,” said Luer, who finished with two goals and an assist Monday. “We got it down on the goal line, and I just took that backdoor pass and put it in.”
Yet before Luer’s goal, Monday’s final was very much in doubt, as the game’s momentum swung back and forth.
After a scoreless first period, the two teams erupted offensively in the second period, combining for six goals in battling to a 3-3 tie.
Forward Isaac Testani broke the shutout when he put a shot off USA Eagles goalkeeper Max Miller (aided by assists from Robert Wells and John Collins) with 11:18 left to put the Thunder in the lead.
However, that lead was short-lived. Just 35 seconds later, USA Eagles forward Michael Atto took a feed from Luer and broke free down the left side to score at the 10:43 mark and tie the game.
Another series of back-and-forths ensued after that.
Thunder forward Jacob Brothers scored off Emmanuel Sanchez’s assist with 7:27 left; USA Eagles responded with Luer’s first goal, off an Atto assist with 6:03 remaining.
The USA Eagles then pulled ahead 3-2 on defender Jake Plizga’s goal (assisted by Trevor Tosto and Elle Hartje) with 3:38 left. But the Thunder tied the score again during USA Eagles’ power-play opportunity, getting a short-handed goal from Sanchez (assisted by Stephen Morley) with 1:12 remaining.
The third period had its own ups and downs — until the penalty set up the power play, and Luer took advantage of an out-of-position Thunder goalkeeper to put home the game winner.
“We needed to do this,” Luer said of winning the national title. “We had to follow [the 2014 team], do what they did, and that was carry on their legacy.
“This is our last time together as a team — we’re all going our separate ways — but it was a great way to cap it off.”
Story by Red Line Editorial, Inc.