By Ross Forman
And then there were, two.
After thousands of games, goals, slapshots and hip checks, the Illinois high school hockey season has been boiled down to two teams still wearing skates.
Benet Academy rose from the No. 4 seed in the Red Division of the 2015 Illinois State Hockey Championship to survive. And thrive. The Red Wings’ route to the finals started with a Sweet 16 win over No. 13-seed Glenbrook South, 5-2, on March 4. Benet then needed overtime on March 9 to drop perennial powerhouse Loyola Gold, 2-1. Then, on March 16, the Red Wings slipped past two-time defending state champion and the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, New Trier Green, 2-1.
The Red Wings skate into the United Center on Sunday, March 22, for the first time ever, where they will face a school quite familiar with the final game of the season. In fact, it was just one year ago that Glenbrook North last skated for state. The Spartans lost to the Trevians a year ago, but GBN is driven to erase that setback.
GBN, with the No. 2 seed, toppled No. 15-seed Sandburg, 4-0, in the Sweet 16 and then ran roughshod over No. 7 Naperville Central, 7-3, on March 10. In the semifinals, the Spartans were put to the ultimate test, and were down 1-0 minutes in and then 2-0 before they knew it, before recovering to stop the Cinderella season of No. 14-seed Notre Dame, 4-3, on March 16.
So it’s Benet Academy vs. Glenbrook North for all the ice glory of the 2014-15 season. The puck drops at 12 noon.
Benet (49-8-3) is the reigning Kennedy Cup champion, a club driven by Bobby Ernsting and Tommy Feldman. Head coach Jon Grzbek has transformed the Red Wings into an Illinois elite. Winning state will seal Benet’s goal of being a hockey brand in Illinois.
Benet has been skating in Illinois’ high school ranks since 1999 and during the 2001-02 season, the team advanced to the Elite 8. They were there again in 2004-05.
The 2005-06 season saw Benet reach the Final 4.
Grzbek joined the club for the 2009-2010 season.
Is 2015 destiny for the Red Wings?
The Spartans say, no. No way.
Glenbrook North has a long, rich hockey history, with two back-to-back state championship streaks. GBN is, arguably, the most successful hockey program in Illinois after New Trier.
The Spartans trailed 2-1 heading into the third period against Notre Dame, then scored three times in less than three minutes to build a 4-2 edge at The Edge Ice Arena in Bensenville. The Spartan three-goal crushing featured tallies from senior defenseman Chad Yale, junior forward Kyle Fisher and senior defenseman Jake Rabin.
Notre Dame senior defenseman Brandon Maize made it 4-3 with 4:14 left, but the Spartans hung on for a return trip to the United Center.
GBN and Benet met last Oct. 12 in Northbrook, with the host Spartans winning, 3-1, on goals from Logan Nein, Chris Zhang and Jared Epstein. Less than three weeks later, the two teams battled at Seven Bridges, and it ended in a 4-4 tie.
The Spartans again toppled Benet, 6-3, on Nov. 15 in Darien, with a three-goal third period to seal the victory. Nein had a 2-goal, 2-assist showing, while Zhang had a goal and 3 assists.
After the Red Division game, the Combined Division game pits No. 4 seed Glenbard back on United Center ice against the No. 3 seed Maine Township, making its first-ever appearance in the state championship game.
Glenbard toppled No. 1 seed Rockford, 5-2, in the semifinals, while Maine ended the repeat dreams of Waubonsie Valley, 4-2.
Glenbard carries a 25-12 record, led by scoring sensation Nick Pietro (68 goals, 48 assists), who tallied a hat trick against Rockford and 14 goals in the team’s last seven games.
Maine has two 50-point performers this season: Shawn Brown (20 goals, 31 assists) and Jimmy Kasch (29, 27). The team also has received key points from Jeremy Carey, Jackson Cloney, Crosley Duckmann, Joe Guzaldo, Nick Porto and Jeremy Starzec, among others.
Maine defeated Glenbard, 4-3, last Dec. 26 in Bensenville. The two teams tied, 4-4, last Nov. 11.
Glenbrook North 4
Benet Academy 3
Maine Township 5
Here are my annual award-winners from the 2014-15 Illinois High School Hockey Season:
Forward of the Year
Winner: Tommy Feldman (Benet Academy)
Runners-up: Troy Nelson (Naperville Central), Nick Pietro (Glenbard)
Defenseman of the Year
Winner: Kyle Slovis (Glenbrook North)
Runners-up: Thomas Dolby (New Trier Green), Richard Chen (Stevenson)
Goaltender of the Year
Winner: Jack Junge (New Trier Green)
Runners-up: Brad Neal (Neuqua Valley), Liam McCann (Highland Park)
Coach of the Year
Winner: Jon Grzbek (Benet Academy)
Runners-up: Steve Martins (Barrington), Bob Melton (New Trier Blue)
Girls Forward of the Year
Winner: Valerie Caldwell (Loyola)
Runner-up: Kendra Nealey (Latin School of Chicago)
Girls Defenseman of the Year
Winner: Kristen Chivers (Lake Forest Academy)
Runner-up: Natalie Ryan (Upper Fox Valley)
Girls Goalie of the Year
Winner: Jazmin Malinowski (Rattlers)
Runner-up Alexandra Roadman (Latin School of Chicago)
Girls Coach of the Year
Winner: Jeff Bruns (Upper Fox Valley)
Runner-up: Courtney O’Connor and Claire O’Connor (Latin School of Chicago)
Ross Forman has written about Illinois high school hockey for more than 15 years, and is the only sportswriter to have covered Illinois High School hockey every year during that stretch. He played locally and then at Indiana University before becoming a referee. Ross was a referee for the State Championship game several years ago at the United Center. Contact Ross by email at Rossco814@aol.com.