Like a dependable locomotive, the St. Francis de Sales hockey team keeps chugging along avoiding derailment from injury and weighty expectations.
The Knights have been hit hard by the injury bug but quality depth has kept them on track. St. Francis (19-5-1) has clinched a fourth consecutive Northwest Hockey Conference Red Division title.
With three consecutive district titles, St. Francis consistently has represented northwest Ohio at the state final four. Five out of the past 10 years, the Knights have reached Columbus.
This year, St. Francis has been ranked No. 2 in the state all season.
“Depth is a big plus for our team,” coach Chris Varga said. “We don't always have to rely on the one line. That's a big bonus for us. The biggest thing is that the kids are playing together. One player does not make the team. Our identity keeps changing on the ice, and it's been a lot of fun to see different things happening and their talent shine.”
Thanks largely to injuries, only nine players on the team's 22-man roster have played in all 25 games this season.
“We've had a lot of guys step up,” junior goaltender Jacob Coward said. “We just keep working hard in practice. We don't lose focus.”
St. Francis senior Tim Organ missed a month of the season but has five goals and 26 assists in just 14 games.
Senior defenseman Tim Organ, Jr., said the team's ability to overcome adversity boils down to hard work.
“We have a great work ethic,” Organ said. “The coaches push us to our limits. We give our best every practice and every game. That's pounded into our heads. We never quit. We grind it out.”
Senior forward Gabe Barrow, the team's leading scorer, said the Knights take pride in being consistent. Barrow leads the team in goals scored (30), assists (34), and points (64).
“We're deep and our chemistry is good,” Barrow said. “Injuries have been a problem this year. We've overcome that. Hockey players like coming to St. Francis and winning. That's how we do it.”
Junior defenseman Jonah Ostrander was lost for the season with a broken kneecap. Organ was out for a month with mononucleosis. Senior forward Nick Daly was out for a month with a torn PCL. Junior forward Ryan Finn missed two months with two broken arms. Junior Sam Shockey was out of the lineup when he took an academic trip to Europe.
“Then we had the flu hit, and everyone got sick,” Varga said. “At one point, we only had nine guys on our team.”
Still, the Knights have outscored foes 135-73.
Varga said he hopes now that team is whole again, it can start to come together.
“We have to play together,” Varga said. “We have to have all 20 guys on the same page and distribute the puck around.”
Vargas said the team has gotten contributions from the entire lineup.
“You can always shut down one line, but you can't always shut down two or three,” he said. “We have a bunch of guys that are scoring. Our third line is popping in three and four goals a night. That makes us dangerous. We emphasize short shifts. We always want fresh legs out there. And the kids buy into it and they enjoy it. If they have a shot, they can go for it.”
Organ, who has been on fire with 31 points (five goals, 26 assists) in just 14 games, said the team can score goals in bunches.
“You could say it's skill,” Organ said. “But the coaches push us. We just pounce on teams. But we stay humble. We don't look ahead and we don't dwell on the past. You have to focus on what is in front of you.”
Senior forward Ben Mitchell has collected 43 points (24 goals, 19 assists), senior forward Matthew Barrow has 38 points (12 goals, 26 assists), junior defenseman Mitchell Digby has eight goals and 35 points, and Ostrander has chipped in with 21 points, including 15 goals.
Daly has averaged a point per game since his return with 19 points (11 goals, 8 assists) in 19 games.
Senior forward Matthew Snyder has 18 points (seven goals, 11 assists) and sophomore forward Nick Coward has added nine goals and 17 points.
Varga said the strength of the team is its defensive unit.
“We can win the battles in our zone,” Varga said. “Our forwards then can have a heyday in the other end. We are really conscious in our own zone. So turning defense into offense is one of our main successes.”
Jacob Coward, who is 15-4-1, said the experienced defenseman make his job a lot easier in goal.
“It's definitely helpful, especially when you have guys that can keep them to low-percentage shots,” said Coward, who has a 2.97 goals-against average.
Varga said Coward, who played in last season’s 5-1 loss in the state final against Cleveland St. Ignatius, is confident in big situations.
“We will ride him out to the end,” Varga said. “He's a game-day kid. He's been in some big games.”
Gabe Barrow agreed Coward and the defensive corps have been big keys to the team's success.
“We have forwards that are flashy, and everyone wants to see the flashy goal,” Barrow said. “But our defense is lock-down. They help Coward out a lot, and they don't get beat a lot.”
Barrow and his fellow seniors on the team were freshmen when the Knights won the state title in 2015. They reached the state title game last year and were knocked out in the semifinals in 2016.
St. Francis has been ranked behind the defending state champs since December, but Organ said the team still is working hard.
“We just need to stay hungry,” Organ said. “We can't think it's going to be handed to us. This team knows what it is like to lose in the finals.”
Varga said the Knights are writing their own story.
“Each game is a chapter. We want to win each chapter. We finally have our team back. This is the first time all year we've had our whole 20-man roster,” Varga said. “We're hoping the best is yet to come.”
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