Prior to our first game this weekend at the Canadian Prep School Alliance Championship, I made a visual of a mountain on the door of our dressing room and spoke to each game being one summit of the mountain; the further we went into the championship, the harder the climb to the top would be. This became an often talked about plot throughout our weekend.
In round-robin play, which consisted of three games, we played Bishop’s College School, Rothesay-Netherwood school and Upper Canada College, ending round-robin with wins over BCS and UCC while dropping our game to RNS. Despite the loss, which was sandwiched between the two wins, we maintained our seed and had a bye to the sem-finals on Saturday evening. In the semi, we faced off against Ridley College, and what a game it was.
As a team we were playing well but opportunistic offence and the usual Ridley non-stop effort and compete saw us go into the third period down 4-1. In my coach’s eye, we had carried a lot of the play. Three crossbars, many good chances but little to show for it. The talk between the second and third period is a script this team has heard many times. We simply don’t count ourselves out. COVID, injuries and other factors have hurt all, but hopefully also taught some resilience. We now really had a mountain to climb.
The third period started off very choppy, with many whistles and no momentum, but our bench was as positive as it has ever been. Some players knew their ice would be limited, but at the end of the day success was going to come from a team effort. In the span of literally minutes, the game changed like I have never seen a game change and we literally looked unstoppable. 4-1, 4-2, 4-3… now it’s not just us believing. 4-4 and then 5-4 Stanstead.
Fists were pumping and hearts were pounding. It seemed like we were now in the driver’s seat, but shortly after that a Riley goal made it 5-5. The question at this point would be how do you react? All that work and now a tied game again, but that didn’t last for long, as we quickly and with extreme skill saw Jeremy Leroux put us on his back and tuck in a goal beside the post on his forehand 6-5 Stanstead. Jeremy Leroux, Chaka Muntu and Nathan Garnier logged big-time minutes and really helped to create the belief. Chaka with 3 goals, Jeremy with 2 and Lorenzo Bono, our hype man, with a top corner shot of his own from the point. We clamped down in our end and, much like our first game of the year, scripted a game that is hard for Hollywood to put together.
Playing in a Canadian Prep finals is something I’ve experienced before with two other amazing groups of Spartans. Sadly, both those teams, despite ultimate effort, were denied their goal. At this point it is worth noting that in our first team meeting on September 10, we decided our actions, the positives and negatives would all be the lessons we needed to “win in March.” It was now onto the finals against RNS, who held the season series with a 2-1 lead going into the finals.
As I write on the bus, with the emotions raw and the feeling truly not quite sunk in, I find much of the game to be a blur. I will have to watch it back to really see the pieces for what they were. An even first period ended with a 0-0 score. We controlled much of the second, carried a large lead in shots, but the scoreboard still read a tie, now 1-1. Lorenzo Bono took a hard hit and was out of the game, and Liam Carroll, another D man separated his shoulder the night prior vs Ridley. The numbers on the back end were getting thin.
In between the second and the third period of the finals, it was once again a simple message. Take what you think is yours. Still in his equipment, Lorenzo’s words (to paraphrase) were that his gear wasn’t coming off because he was coming out in uniform to celebrate with his team. Hype man at work again.
Slow start to the third period. Jeremy Leroux now out with an injury, I’m wondering what’s next, and before that thought can really process we’re up 4-2. RNS quickly replied 4-3 but at this point I felt us clamping down and feeling that feeling, it was just about the clock hitting 00:00 now… and it did 4-3 Stanstead. Captain Liam Steele with the game winning goal. Relief, happiness, joy and gloves flying high followed next. And let me tell you the gloves flew.
Last Wednesday in our final practice before heading out, we took a page out of infamous NCAA basketball coach Jimmy Valvano’s playbook. In the NCAA, winning teams cut the net down. In hockey, you don’t cut the net but you pile off the bench. He believed that you needed to visualize that feeling and it was best to practice it, so we did. At the beginning and end of practice we put 25 seconds on the clock and let it run down and we practiced that winning feeling, we let it be comfortable and on Sunday it wasn’t practice anymore.
I speak for myself, Mr. Vanasse and Mr. Wilson when I say this year writes a book itself. We have seen a lot, and a lot that is off the script, but we always believed that there was a touch of special in our group, a belief, a “look in their eyes.” At one time ,we lost that look, but since Christmas it was back. We are proud coaches, winning is beautiful, but we would be proud either way. Winning isn’t everything, but I will be honest right now it is nice!
A huge thank you to all the Stanstead support system: Students, teachers, parents, family members, alums and fans. When you know you are working in a group bigger than just a team you can find energy when it shouldn’t be their and belief when it may have seemed bleak. It was special for me personally to see former players reach out and say “congrats.” Spartan pride is for life, and championships can not be taken away.