Come-from-behind win over host team is fourth Illinois title in past five years
By Ross Forman
Team Illinois has won the prestigious 24-team national tournament four of the past five years, and back to back years.
They defeated Team Pittsburgh 6-3 in the championship game, despite falling behind 3-1 early in the second period. But Illinois scored five unanswered, including three in the third period to retain the title.
Jacob Rott and Jake Vennetti, the flashy forwards from Providence Catholic, each had 4 goals, 5 assists in the tournament, while Nicholas Feldman (Benet) led the team with a team-high 5 goals and 2 assists.
Rott was named the tournament MVP for the second year in a row.
“To score six goals in the championship game is a pretty good feat,” said Illinois assistant coach Nick Iaciancio (Providence). “I think our kids are under-valued, to be honest. I think they can play with a lot of other (top players across the U.S.). I think people are going to have to start playing attention to (Illinois high school hockey players).”
With Pittsburgh leading 3-1, Ryan Kelly (co-op Glenbard) and Rott each scored in 2-minute span late in the second period to tie the game, 3-3. “When we tied the score, the momentum really shifted,” said Nicholas Christianson, 18, of Arlington Heights, a senior forward at Buffalo Grove High School who skated all four years for the co-op BG/H/W Stampede varsity, including the team’s 2016 state championship season. He finished with 1 goal, 4 assists in the tournament.
Mathew Ernsting (Benet) and Rott each scored their second goals of the game in the third period, and Vennetti iced the title with a tally at 13:21.
Goalie Ryan Iaciancio (Providence) made 26 saves for the win.
Assists in the title game were given to John Purcell (Loyola Gold), Gary Barbera (Barrington), Aaron Hope (Highland Park), Ernsting and Feldman.
“We came out slow (in the championship game), but our skill and determination helped us take over,” Christianson said. “Our depth carried us through the tournament, and our goaltending was great.”
Nick Iaciancio is in his third stint on the Showcase coaching staff and this was his seventh year overall with the elite team.
“It was quite a challenge,” to win the title, Coach Iaciancio said. “We were down to four defensemen (early in the tournament due to injuries), so our backs were up against the wall. And this year’s team was really different from last year’s team. The talent was spread out a lot more across the state, and this team did not have the preparation time that other (past) teams have had. I think we’ve come in more polished (in past years).
“But the kids really played with a lot of guts and a lot of heart.”
Illinois outscored its tournament opponents 25-9.
“Illinois probably could field two (competitive) teams for this tournament,” Iaciancio said.
Iaciancio said Ernsting (2 goals, 1 assist overall) had a “great” tournament and the “unsung hero” was Liam O’Reilly (Benet), who was forced to move from forward to defense due to injuries – and he finished with 2 goals, 2 assists.
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.