Notre Dame looks to overcome injury-filled season with stellar post-season
By Ross Forman
Hockey’s version of March Madness, at least at the high school level, is the grind for the gold that is crowned at the United Center on Friday night, March 18.
The top-tiered Red Division was at the Sweet 16 level as of Leap Day, but that once-every-four-year day was the last day of the season for four teams. And four other teams skate their final game of the season on March 1.
Elite Eight action in the Red Division is March 9 and March 11, and the semifinals will be held March 14.
This is, without question the best, most exciting part of the season.
And the most heartbreaking.
Win or go home.
“It’s a long season, and now everyone is living day to day,” said Notre Dame head coach Bart Czachor. The No. 11 Dons play No. 6-seeded St. Rita to advance to the Elite Eight round against either Providence or Naperville Central. “At this point, you just hope you play your best (game); and it’s important to embrace (the state tournament). Play loose, work hard, have fun and just hope it goes your way.”
As it did for the Dons last season, when Notre Dame was the most surprising state tournament team.
This season, though, the Dons entered March with a 19-29-1 record through an injury-plagued season. A really injury-plagued season.
In the first period of the first Notre Dame game of the season, William Panoutsos separated his shoulder and never played another game all season.
The Dons never played another game all season with their full roster; injuries were plentiful.
“It’s tough,” dealing with so many injuries, “but you just have to fight through. And hey, it gives other kids the chance to shine,” Czachor said.
The two brightest Dons, arguably, are Max Fadell and David Wendel. Fadell has been the team’s most consistent player all year, a forward who had to drop back to defense due to injuries, “and he just adapted,” Czachor said. “He’s been our most important player.” Wendel has missed a lot of games this season due to injuries, but still was named All-State.
Notre Dame’s offense this season has been junior-led as James O’Kane, Joshua Hemmer, Stefan Vojinovic, Apostoli Sarantopoulos and Wilson Nagle have carried the weight. “They work hard and have great abilities to score,” Czachor said.
Frank Greif is the lone freshman on the Dons’ varsity, and he too has been sidelined at time by injuries. Greif is a defenseman who “really know how to play … everything about his game is good,” Czachor said.
Notre Dame was eliminated from the Catholic League’s Kennedy Cup with a 9-4 and then 2-1 overtime loss to Benet.
“This is always an exciting time of the season; I know the kids really enjoy it,” Czachor said. “I feel like there are 10 to 12 teams that could win it all, and that’s what you want every season. Our program has been continually improving and we’ve been consistently playing into March, which obviously is what we want.”
Czachor said Benet and Providence will be tough to beat this season, and he also sung the praise of New Trier Green, Loyola Gold and Glenbrook North.
“We want to always be in the mix (with the perennial powers), and we have been of late,” Czachor said.
Brother Rice, which was the No. 9 seed, was the first major team to end its season early. OPRF did the honors, with a 4-2 win Feb. 25 in Oak Lawn.
The Huskies didn’t have quite as thrilling a regular-season, finishing with an 18-13-0-3 record in the IHSHL West Division. But the win over Brother Rice sent OPRF onto the Edge Blackhawk rink for a clash with No. 8 Stevenson, as the Patriots easily dismantled Deerfield, 10-3 in Buffalo Grove on Feb. 25.
OPRF features four high-offense players: senior forward George Brennan (15 goals, 19 assists in league play), junior forward Aiden Kelley (13, 20), senior forward Michael Dealba (24, 13), and sophomore forward Liam Burns (14, 21). Senior forward Grey Small also has had a strong season for the Huskies with 11 goals, 11 assists, including 4 game-winning goals.
Ben Ostler and Jacob Rosas have been solid in goal for the Huskies, as the team has surrendered only 97 goals against West foes – fourth-fewest in the league.
No. 18 Hinsdale Central pulled a minor upset to reach the Sweet 16, stopping No. 15 Fenwick, 5-2 in Oak Park. And, No. 19 Naperville Central ousted No. 14 Highland Park on the road, 6-4.
The White Division plays its Elite Eight round on Sunday, March 13, with all of the top six seeds still alive. No. 10 Niles Township defeated No. 7 Spartans, 4-1 in Darien; and No. 9 Cary-Grove ended the run of No. 8 Homewood-Flossmoor, 6-1.
The Combined Division plays its Sweet 16 round on March 5-6 at The Edge Ice Rink in Bensenville — and the top 11 seeds are still alive. No. 1 Rockford opens state play against No. 16 Joliet Catholic, and No. 2 Waubonsie faces No. 15 AWF.
Sure, teams like Maine Township, BG/H/W and Glenbard could be skating for glory at the United Center, but I’m still standing behind a 1-2 battle for the title, Rockford against Waubonsie.
And it wouldn’t be a surprise or an upset to see Waubonsie skate away with the title.
The No. 2-seeded Loyola is the first team to advance to the Girls’ Elite Eight, with a 9-1 win over Evanston. Glenbrook South pushed its way into the Girls’ Elite Eight with 6-1 win over New Trier #2.
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.