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Published: Wednesday, 3/9/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

Top-ranked St. Francis seeks first state championship

BY MARK MONROE
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Tyler Murphy, left, celebrates with Nate Opblinger, center, and Bryce Connor after scoring a goal against St. John's in the district final at Tam-O-Shanter. Murphy leads St. Francis with 43 goals and 56 assists. The Knights (32-4-1) face Powell Olentangy Liberty (27-8-1) in the state semifinals. Tyler Murphy, left, celebrates with Nate Opblinger, center, and Bryce Connor after scoring a goal against St. John's in the district final at Tam-O-Shanter. Murphy leads St. Francis with 43 goals and 56 assists. The Knights (32-4-1) face Powell Olentangy Liberty (27-8-1) in the state semifinals.
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With memories to be made and history to be written, the St. Francis de Sales hockey team appears steadfast in its intent to bring back a state championship from Columbus.

The Knights skate into the state semifinals at Nationwide Arena with confidence accompanied by a No. 1 ranking and seeking the first state hockey title in school history.

The Knights (32-4-1) face unranked Powell Olentangy Liberty (27-8-1) Saturday at noon.

In six trips to the state tournament, only the 1988 St. Francis team reached the final where it lost 4-2 to Parma Padua Franciscan. The Knights have lost five other times (2008, 2005, 1995, 1992, 1988, and 1985) in the semifinals.

"It would the mean the world to us," said senior Nate Opblinger, who leads the team with 62 assists and has scored 29 goals. "It would mean everything."

St. Francis coach Brian Kinsella guided the Knights to its last final-four berth.

"To bring a trophy back would be the ultimate thing they can do," Kinsella said. "They will have their names posted in the school and every time they come back that banner will be hanging up in that school and they can say, 'I was the first one to win that.' "

Junior Ben Torchia scored a hat trick and had two assists in the a 7-4 victory over St. John's in the district final.

"It would be sweet to be the first St. Francis state champ team. It's definitely in our heads," said Torchia, who has 42 goals and 45 assists. "But we try not to talk about it. We just play our game."

Senior Tyler Murphy, who leads the team with 43 goals to go along with 56 assists, had five points (two goals and three assists) in the district championship.

"I think winning a state title would not only be great for the school, it'd be great for everyone in this area," Murphy said.

St. John's Jesuit is the only team from the Toledo metro area to capture a state title. The Titans won it in 2007 after defeating the Knights in the district semis.

In its last state appearances in 2008, St. Francis lost in the semifinals to Lakewood St. Edward (3-1). The Knights appear headed on a collision course with St. Ed in Sunday's final.

No. 3 St. Ed (25-14-3) plays seventh-ranked Gates Mills Gilmour Academy (31-8-2) in the at 3 p.m. Saturday.

Kinsella said lingering disappointment over a season-ending upset loss to Findlay in the district semifinals last season should motivate his team to not overlook Olentangy Liberty.

Scott Wawrzyniak, a junior, of St. Francis watches his shot slide under St. John's goaltender Jackson Steltman in the district final. Scott Wawrzyniak, a junior, of St. Francis watches his shot slide under St. John's goaltender Jackson Steltman in the district final.
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"We have to take care of business Saturday to get to Sunday," he said. "We're not going down there thinking we're just going to throw our sticks on the ice and win."

St. Francis avenged the loss to Findlay with a 6-3 win this year in the district.

"After last year's experience with Findlay, the seniors remember that and you have to come out like every game is going to be your last," Opblinger said.

The Knights were in high spirits at practice on Monday.

"You live for this extra week of practice," Kinsella said. "You put in all the hard work. You yell and scream, praise and pat on the back. It's a lot of emotions and the end result is you get to play for something special. These are memories that will stay with them forever. We can make history."

The players said there is a buzz at school.

"Everyone is excited to go down there and cheer us on," Opblinger said.

"The school is pumped," Torchia agreed.

Opblinger, Murphy, and Torchia form the team's top line. But the Knights are deep.

Senior Kasey Rupp (5 G, 18 A) teams with brothers Jake Wawrzyniak (12 G, 10 A), senior, and Scott Wawrzyniak (12 G, 14 A), a junior, on a physical, checking line. Rupp leads the team with 106 hits.

The third line has been solid as well with juniors Reid Kersey (6 G, 22 A) and Trent Streitchert (7, 7) teamed up with freshman Matt Opblinger (9, 12).

"The first line has played a lot together over the last few years," Torchia said. "The second line just bangs. They're big kids. The third line are our workhorses."

Kinsella said this team has that all-important element of closeness with teammates playing for each other. He said the captains, Murphy, Nate Opblinger, and senior defensemen Bryce Connor (24 points) and Connor Frey (18 G, 44 A), have bonded the team.

"The seniors know this is it and they have an opportunity to do something no one else has," he said.

The team has scored 5.5 goals per game and has averaged 40.9 shots per game. Defensively, the Knights are giving up just 2.1 goals and only 17.9 shots per contest.

Junior goalie Thomas Kosinski (5-foot-6, 150 pounds) has stood tall in net. He has started in all 37 games and has a 2.07 goals-against average and .881 save percentage.

Ben Torchia, a junior who has 42 goals and 45 assists for St. Francis, spins away from Findlay's JoJo Birgadoi in a district semifinal. Ben Torchia, a junior who has 42 goals and 45 assists for St. Francis, spins away from Findlay's JoJo Birgadoi in a district semifinal.
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"T.K. has come up huge for us all year," Murphy said. "But we want to give him as much support as we can so he doesn't have to face so many shots."

Torchia and Opblinger said the team has paid particular attention to special teams.

"You want to be disciplined but also be aggressive and take good penalties if you take any," Torchia said.

"Special teams win games," Opblinger said.

A terrific state title game could be in the works. St. Francis has defeated St. Ed four times this season.

"All the games with them have been close battles. We had to come back big in one of those games," Murphy said. "They're deep and physical."

The Knights defeated the Cleveland-area powerhouse twice in one weekend. They won 3-1 in a Thanksgiving tournament second-round game and then won 2-0 to take that tournament's title. St. Francis then bested St. Ed 3-1 on Dec. 17. The Knights finished the sweep by winning the Padua Holiday Invitational tournament title with a 4-3 comeback victory Dec. 19 after trailing 3-1 in the second period.

"They'll be biting the bit to get at us," Kinsella said. "It would set up to be a great state championship game."

Kinsella said some of the keys to winning at this point in the season are scoring first, preferably in the first five minutes, and limiting teams to fewer than 20 shots.

"That first goal is huge," Kinsella said. "It gives a big boost to everyone."

Murphy said it's a great honor to be able to play down in the atmosphere of an NHL arena for a state title.

"We have to go down there thinking we are the No. 1 team in the state and we have to play like it," Kinsella said. "We're going down there to win."

Contact Mark Monroe at: mmonroe@theblade.com or 419-724-6354.



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