By Ross Forman
Tim Benz was ready last March when hired as the new head coach at Saint Viator to make a strong push for the Kennedy Cup, the prestigious title awarded to the Catholic League playoff champion, a title that dates back to 1964 and is the oldest trophy in Illinois High school hockey.
Benz admitted, though, that he did not expect to win the Kennedy Cup in year one.
His expectations were shattered on Sunday night, Feb. 25, when the Lions defeated St. Ignatius 5-0 at MB Ice Arena in Chicago to win the best-of-three series.
The title is “a testament to our team buying in to the systems and strategy my brothers and I are putting in place,” said Benz, who is assisted by Chris and Greg – all three of whom played at Glenbrook South.
Tim, 31, who lives in Glenview, has been coaching for eight years and four years at the high school level.
“Personally, (the team this season has done) as expected. I had high hopes for this team coming in, knowing what kind of talent was on the roster. Outside of our locker room most people would say (the team has done) better than expected,” said Benz, noting that the Lions are loaded with offensive power and senior leadership.
St. Ignatius captured first-place in the Catholic League regular-season, finishing with a 16-2-2 record, two points more than Saint Viator (14-2-4).
St. Ignatius, with the No. 1 seed in the Kennedy Cup, defeated Brother Rice and St. Rita en route to the finals. No. 2-seed Saint Viator stopped Fenwick and Benet Academy before facing the Wolfpack in the finals.
The Kennedy Cup was first won by Fenwick in 1964, and Providence has won the last two and three of the past four.
Saint Viator has never hoisted the Kennedy Cup.
So winning is a “fantastic feeling,” Benz said. “We are really happy for our team, especially our seniors.”
Benz said the Lions captured the Cup with “team wins.”
“We had guys playing roles unselfishly; all four lines were producing and our goaltending came up big when called upon,” he said.
The Lions won Game One of the Kennedy Cup, 5-1, on Feb. 18 at MB Ice Arena in Chicago, but the Wolfpack grabbed Game Two, 4-2, played in Mount Prospect.
Nimrod was among the top 10 scoring leaders this season in the Chicago Catholic League – and four of the top 10 are Lions, including Anthony Letto, Anthony Aiello and Vince Avino. Letto was the CCHL’s leading scorer with 44 points in 20 league games.
“I have had many friends and teammates of mine play for (the Kennedy Cup) and they would always tell me how big of a deal it was to win. I now fully understand,” Benz said. “It was a great win for our team, our program and our school. This is the first time in the hockey team’s 45-year existence (that it has) won the Kennedy Cup.”
Benz said that winning both of their Kennedy Cup finals games on the road “made it even more challenging.” And, he added that winning in such a convincing fashion over a very strong team gives the team “a big boost in confidence going into state.”
Ah yes, the Illinois High School Hockey State Tournament.
No. 5-seed Saint Viator faces No. 12 York on Friday, March 2 in the Sweet 16 round of the state tournament, with the winner positioned to then face No. 4 Glenbrook North or No. 13 Fenwick.
The Lions might have to face the Wolfpack again in the state tournament and could possibly face No. 1-ranked Loyola Gold before advancing to the United Center.
The Championship Game (Red Division) will be played Saturday, March 24, starting at 3 p.m.
The Lions, ironically, had one of the team’s most memorable moments all season against the Wolfpack, during Game Three of the Kennedy Cup.
It was a shorthanded goal that gave the Lions a three-goal lead, “and was a back breaker for St. Ignatius,” Benz said.
Another memorable moment this season was defeating New Trier Green in the semifinals of the annual Loyola Thanksgiving Tournament. “It was a huge confidence boost for our team and made (the players) realize that they truly can compete with the best in the state,” Benz said.
So how was Saint Viator revived?
“First and foremost, the players did it,” Benz said. “My brothers and I put systems and strategy in place, and the players bought in and worked very hard. Without hard work at practice, off-ice conditioning, the weight room and film sessions, this would not happen. The team put the work in and the results speak for themselves.”
- Tim on brothers Chris and Greg, who are Saint Viator assistants: “Without their effort, input and knowledge, it would have been tough to get this far in one season.”
- Sizing up Saint Viator: 6 seniors (including two goaltenders), 8 juniors and 5 sophomores.
- Looking Ahead: The team returns a lot of offensive firepower and five defenseman next season. Plus, “we have a strong JV team that will move up some talented players as well,” Benz said.
- State Championship: Yes, it is “a definite possibility,” Benz said. “If we play team hockey the way we did in Game Three (of the Kennedy Cup finals) against St. Ignatius, we will be tough to beat.”
- First Step to State, York: “A strong, fast, physical team that can be very dangerous. They play in a very competitive league, so they are used to playing top-notch competition day in and day out. We have not played them all year, so this will definitely be a good test for us.”
- Glenbrook North: The Spartans hold a 3-1 season series edge over Saint Viator this season. All four games have been decided by one goal, and the Lions have lost three times in OT. “It will be a battle,” Benz said.
- All-State players (Letto, Avino and defenseman Kevin Joyce), marking the first time Saint Viator had three players represented on the All-State team. “They not only are great, talented players, but fantastic leaders,” Benz said. “That senior leadership I talk about so much stems from these guys. They will be tough to replace next year. I cannot speak highly enough about these three guys.”
- Key Players: Senior LW Anthony Letto, senior C Vince Avino, senior RW Anthony Aiello, senior D Kevin Joyce, sophomore D Nick Chiapetta, and senior GK Collin Bauman.
- Key An Eye On: Sophomore center Sean Wagner. “He has been one of those role players who has helped us out so much in the playoffs. He has hit multiple posts in the past few games and is inches away from scoring big goals for us,” Benz said.
- Keep An Eye On These Teams: Loyola Gold, New Trier Green and Stevenson
*Photos courtesy of Joni Lolli*
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.