Northview's Zach Felser (27) sweeps the puck past a Cleveland St. Ignatius player during the championship game.
The seeds of the Northview hockey team's unexpected run to the state championship game were planted during a team meeting in mid-January.
The Wildcats had lost two in a row and saw their record fall to 10-8-3 on Jan. 22. Second-year coach Mike Jones said he had a special message for his players.
"I asked [assistant coach] Steve Elliott what our record was at the time," Jones said. "I didn't feel like we were playing at a poor level. But I thought we were still learning. At that point I told the kids if you want to win you have to listen to us. I told them they had to let it sink in what we were talking about. The light went on, and they started executing what we were teaching."
Northview won its next 11 games, including five straight tournament contests. The Wildcats dominated Dublin Coffman 4-0 in the state semifinals at Nationwide Arena in Columbus.
But the elation turned to deflation in the state championship when Northview fell 4-1 to Cleveland St. Ignatius. The Wildcats bowed out with a 21-9-3 record. It was the fourth trip to the state final in school history and the fourth time they finished second. The Wildcats also finished second in 1982, 1990, and 2006.
"That means I have to get better at what I do," Jones said.
But it was the coach's pep talk that led to regular-season wins over No. 1-ranked St. Francis de Sales (2-1 on Jan. 30) and powerhouse St. John's Jesuit (4-2 on Feb. 13). Northview then marched through the first two postseason games with a 10-0 shutout of Start and a 5-2 victory over Bowling Green. The Wildcats then knocked St. John's out of the tournament with a 4-3 triumph in the district semifinal and then won the district championship by routing Findlay 7-1.
Jones said the coaching staff simply emphasized the basics. "We talked about things like not turning the puck over in the gray zones, five feet inside and outside of the blue line. I told them to finish hits, chip pucks in, and get shots on net," Jones said. "Doing the basic things gives you an extreme advantage."
Senior defenseman Jordan Jones also said the coaching staff is never negative.
"If someone makes a mistake, you don't have to yell at them," Jordan Jones said. "You pat them on the back and slap them on the pads. Yelling gets you nowhere. A positive attitude gets you through."
Coach Jones, who played at Bowling Green State University and then professionally in the ECHL, said he blends the coaching styles that he has played under.
"I never use negative words," Jones said. "I use only positive statements."
Jones said defeating St. John's three times, including in the district semifinals, was another point of pride.
"It was good for us. They beat us in two overtimes in the district final last year. So we erased some of that," Jones said.
Jones said his team takes "a tremendous amount of pride playing at a public school."
"At the public schools the kids have to be born the right year and live on the right side of the tracks so to speak. It takes a lot of luck," Jones said. "These kids are very proud to represent a public school."
Jones, who attended St. John's for two years, said he has nothing against the private schools.
"By no means is my statement a knock on the private. But we do take a ton of pride in being a public school," Jones said.
Junior forward Tyler Harding, who scored in the state semifinal, said the players believe they are always in the shadow of the Catholic schools.
"That's kind of how it has always been," Harding said. "We've never gotten respect. We've always just been a public school competing for a spot. That motivates us and keeps us going."
Jordan Jones said the team wanted to be the first public school to win the state title since Shaker Heights did it in 2001.
"Around this area public schools do not get much credit for being good hockey schools," Jordan Jones said. "So it's great going down to states."
While the trip fell short this season, eight of the team's top 10 scorers this season will return next year. Top scorers Aaron Booth and Nolan Culver are juniors, while sophomore goalie Austin Gryca played beyond his years.
"Austin is a great goalie. His preparation and focus is phenomenal," Harding said.
Gryca led Northview to the state final four for the first time since 2006 when it finished runner-up under legendary coach Jim Cooper.
Coach Jones credited assistant coaches Doug Carter and Elliott, who both served under Cooper, for maintaining consistency in the program.
"They know exactly what they are doing. They had a ship run well for many, many years," Jones said. "You have no idea what the coaching staff puts these kids through.
"The kids gave everything they had and more. But second place for this program never will be good enough."
The Wildcats have never won a team state championship in any sport. Senior Mark Hall, who scored Northview's only goal in the state championship, said finishing second is bittersweet. "It's not good enough," Hall said.
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