The Northview hockey team experienced the highest of highs last March and the Wildcats have battled to avoid complacency while rediscovering a hunger to be the best this season.
The squad captured the school's first team state title in any sport last year. The program, which was founded in 1976, had won a district title eight times but never had won it all.
Now Northview is back in a familiar position as the Wildcats have earned a spot in the district championship game on Saturday. They face St. John's Jesuit, another perennial state power, 7 p.m. at Tam-O-Shanter.
Northview coach Mike Jones, who lost 10 players from the state title team, said this group has had some “trials and tribulations.”
“Early on I think there might have been a sense of entitlement,” Jones said. “Now I can understand why Stanley Cup winners have such a difficult time [repeating]. The last game these guys played was the biggest of their lives. You have a parade and everybody tells you how good you are. It's tough to get back and get going again. It's been tough getting our feet under us and finding a sense of cohesion.”
Northview had been ranked as high as third in the state coaches poll.
It had fallen down to sixth late in the season before finishing fifth.
Jones said he believes the drive has been rediscovered for the Wildcats (25-6-1). They've outscored their foes 18-3 in the tournament, including a 8-3 whitewashing of Findlay in the district semifinal last Saturday.
“Last year's team was great and those are great memories. But this is a new journey,” Jones said. “We've taken some punches. I think we have that humility now. It's neat to see how they've responded to adversity.”
Senior captain Zander Pryor, who is playing for Northview for the first time after playing travel hockey, also had to “figure some things out,” according to his coach.
Pryor now leads the team in scoring with 59 points. He has scored 17 goals and has a team-high 42 points.
“This has been a great feeling,” said Pryor of reaching the district final. “Everybody is pumped up.”
Senior Drew Crandall, who scored the game winner in a 5-2 win over Lakewood St. Edward in the state title game, leads Northview with 35 goals. Crandall also has added 21 assists for 56 points in 32 games.
Jones has gotten contributions up and down the lineup as 13 players have at least 14 points.
Junior Cody Estrel has tallied 38 points (11 goals, 27 assists), followed by Josh Koback (5 G, 31 A), Xavier Sudlow (16 G, 19 A), and Nick LaPlante (12 G, 17 A).
LaPlante scored two key goals in the first period of the district semifinal.
“Going down the stretch we have so many guys that can contribute,” LaPlante said. “We have a lot of depth and that helps a lot.”
Caleb Rau (14 G, 12 A) and Tyler Dewitt (5 G, 16 A) also have more than 20 points.
“We have scoring throughout,” Jones said. “I think we have a good mix of experience and younger guys. We are good along the blue line. I think we can fly and we play with a good pace. I think we can take care of all three zones.”
Goalies David Marsh and Preston Due have split time in net. Marsh, a junior, is 14-3-1 with a 1.72 goals-against average and has six shutouts. Due, a sophomore, is 11-2-2 with a 1.77 GAA and two shutouts.
Northview is averaging 4.9 goals per game and is giving up just 1.8.
“It's great knowing we have another shot at it,” LaPlante said. “This whole season we've been working really hard for that main goal at the end. Now we have a chance to go down there again.”
To do that the Wildcats once again have to get past a nemesis.
Either Northview or St. John's has reached the district final in each of the last seven seasons. St. John's won district titles in 2007 and 2009. Northview won in 2006, 2010, and last season.
Both programs then went on to reach the state title game. The Titans won it all in 2007 and the Wildcats were crowned champs last season.
St. John's (26-7-0), finished the season ranked second in the state coaches poll. The Titans were slotted behind top-ranked Cleveland St. Ignatius for the entire regular season.
The Titans advanced to the district title game for the third straight season with a 5-0 shutout of Bowling Green in the semis on Friday.
The Titans saw their last two seasons end in the district finals with losses to the eventual state champions. Northview beat St. John's 2-1 last March and St. Francis de Sales knocked out the Titans 7-4 in 2011.
“I think we have learned from our successes and our setbacks,” St. John's coach Mike Hayes said. “They are very determined.”
Senior Austin Kelly, who scored two goals in the district semis, leads the Titans with 76 points. He has scored 27 goals and has a team-high 49 assists.
“We still have the sting from the last two years and we know how it feels and we don't want to feel it again,” Kelly said.
Much like Northview, the Titans feature depth and quickness.
“We can roll four lines and we like playing fast,” Hayes said. “We always talk about raising the pace of the game.”
Ian Rapp is tied for the team lead with 27 goals. Rapp also has 40 assists for 67 points.
Colin Suter has scored 23 goals to go along with 35 assists.
“It's a good feeling to go to the district final again,” Suter said. “But I'm sick of losing. At this point, skill is out the window. It all comes down to who wants it more.
"We'll come into Saturday night flying.”
Junior goalie Mike Barrett (21-6-0) has a 1.58 GAA with seven shutouts. Barrett led the Titans to the Northwest Hockey Conference’s Red Division title. Teams from the NHC have won three of the last six state titles.
St. John’s and Northview split their games this season. The Titans won 4-2, Northview won 1-0.
“We respect them and they respect us,” Hayes said. “Neither of us will back down.
"Both teams will give it everything they've got.”
Contact Mark Monroe at: email@example.com, 419-724-6354 or on Twitter @MonroeBlade.