As a hockey program, St. Francis de Sales twice has traveled to the state capital and won a championship.
But the current roster still is seeking its first happy bus ride from Columbus to Toledo.
St. Francis de Sales captain Tim Organ Jr. and the Knights are after the program's third state title.
For all of the program’s consistency — the Knights have four consecutive trips to the state semifinal round and five in eight years — the past two trips to Nationwide Arena have ended on a sour note.
Two top-ranked St. Francis teams fell short with 5-1 losses to Cleveland St. Ignatius, including a frustrating state final last season during which everything seemed to go wrong.
Nine seniors on the roster know the unhappy side of single-elimination hockey, and the Knights have not forgotten the feeling as they return to Columbus for a Friday morning semifinal against Hunting Valley University School.
“You have that taste in your mouth, and it’s not a good taste,” said Knights captain Tim Organ, Jr., the Northwest Hockey Conference player of the year. “You get so close, and then you have to go home knowing you could have had it, almost had it, and you didn’t play your best game. It definitely motivates you to go down there and not repeat what happened last time.”
Cleveland St. Ignatius has eliminated St. Francis de Sales two years in a row. The two teams play in opposite semifinals Friday in Columbus.
In last year’s title game, the Knights surrendered a goal just 10 seconds into the game. Despite outshooting St. Ignatius, St. Francis found itself losing 4-0 just 1 minute, 30 seconds into the second period.
St. Francis won the state championship in 2015, when its current seniors were freshmen, but the roster has only one holdover from that team.
Every member of the Knights has won an NHC title and advanced to the state final four in every season at St. Francis, yet the elusive state title remains on their wish list.
“I know both teams don’t want to lose, but they just really want to do something they’ve never accomplished before,” St. Francis coach Chris Varga said. “I think that’s the big thing for this team: They want to show people in northwest [Ohio] that this wasn’t a fluke.”
This time around, St. Francis (25-6-1) enters the final weekend having played arguably its best hockey of the season.
Matthew Snyder celebrates a goal during the St. Francis de Sales' defeat of St. John's Jesuit last week at Tam-O-Shanter. The Knights are appearing in their fourth straight state semifinal.
The Knights are ranked No. 2 even in a season that was filled with injuries, and they cruised to another district title last week. St. Francis outscored three district opponents 23-2 and advanced to Columbus with a thorough 6-2 dispatching of rival St. John’s Jesuit.
“I feel like we’re on the uprise,” senior forward Gabe Barrow said. “Just the way we’ve started to prepare for games in the playoffs is different. I don’t want to say we’re taking it more seriously because we’ve taken all the games seriously, but I think it’s that factor of you go home if you lose.”
The Knights’ semifinal is at 10 a.m. Friday against third-ranked University School (24-7-3). St. Francis won the only meeting of the season between the teams, 4-2 on Dec. 16.
Top-ranked St. Ignatius, which has won three of the past four state championships, will play No. 6 Dublin Jerome in the other semifinal.
Regardless of outcome, the group of St. Francis seniors knows this weekend will be its last.
“You definitely want to take it seriously because you don’t want your last game to be heartbreaking,” Barrow said. “But you also have to stay calm. It’s just a hockey game when you look at it, and the stakes might be higher, but it’s the same game.”
To help prepare for the big venue at Nationwide Arena, the Knights practiced at the Huntington Center this week. The NHL building has the same size playing surface as high school games, but with drastically different sight lines, lighting, and a well-heated interior that players said can contribute to fatigue for the younger players who are not used to it.
Because the high school semifinalists do not have a chance to practice on the ice in Columbus before the first game, Varga said the downtown Toledo building replicates close to what the players will see come game time.
Two games away from solving the Columbus riddle, the Knights are hoping their plan will inspire their best hockey.
“Win or lose, we’re going to do what we do best, hopefully to the best of our ability,” Varga said. “And hopefully we come home with something.”
Guidelines: Please keep your comments smart and civil. Don't attack other readers personally, and keep your language decent. Comments that violate these standards, or our privacy statement or visitor's agreement, are subject to being removed and commenters are subject to being banned. To post comments, you must be a registered user on toledoblade.com. To find out more, please visit the FAQ.