Lions’ JV Team Wins Catholic League’s DiCristina Cup
By Ross Forman
In a season filled with adversity, Saint Viator has certainly accomplished a lot.
Through the team’s first 54 games this season, only eight games featured all 18 skaters.
“Name a situation and we had it happen to us,” said Saint Viator head coach Tim Benz, in his second season on the team’s bench, his seventh season coaching high school hockey and his ninth year overall as a coach.
The Viator woes went away for a bit in late-February when the Lions captured their second consecutive Kennedy Cup as the Catholic League playoff champion.
The Saint Viator JV team also captured the DiCristina Cup.
“The fact that we were able to keep winning through all (the adversity) was what put us in position to succeed in the playoffs,” Benz said. “We have built some mentally-tough players this year and that puts us in a position to win games.
“What a great feeling (it was to repeat as Kennedy Cup champion). And with the adversity that this group has gone through made it even sweeter.
“Last year we shocked the league. Nobody expected us to do as well as we did. This year we had a target on our backs as defending champs, so we had to bring our A-game day in, day out. In the finals we played a very tough, well-coached St. Ignatius team both years. We knew this season they were going to be hungry for a championship, so we knew we could not let up.”
Team play was the key for Viator.
“Guys put their egos aside in the playoffs and (did) whatever (needed) to win games. Whether it was block shots, take defensive shifts or put the puck below the opposing goal line, everyone has a job to do and when the team is all in on the message, good things happen,” Benz said. “We have established the program as a top program, not only in the Catholic League, but in the state. We proved last year was not a one-hit-wonder.”
Benz said that winning back-to-back Kennedy Cup trophies “is an honor,” especially since it is the oldest league playoff trophy in Illinois, named after President John F. Kennedy.
Ask any Catholic League player, past or present, which they’d prefer to win, the Kennedy Cup or the state championship, and the majority will say, the Kennedy Cup.
“To see the history of some of those dominant (Catholic League) teams from decades past and to now share something with them is quite an accomplishment,” Benz said.
For the second year in a row, St. Ignatius captured the Catholic League regular-season title, thus had home ice advantage in the playoffs.
And the Wolfpack led 2-0 after the first period in game one of the best-of-three Kennedy Cup finals.
Saint Viator struck back with four unanswered goals, then two empty-net tallies.
“That adversity we faced all season came into play (during game one). Being down two goals did not phase our team. (It was) a true testament to the mental toughness and desire to win,” Benz said. “St. Ignatius is a tough team; the two games (of the finals) were battles.
“Game two (of the finals) was on our home ice and we had the opportunity to win the Cup at home. Last year we had a little bit of a lapse and lost Game two, pushing the finals into a deciding game three. We learned from last year and didn’t let up (in game two). Not only did we win a championship on home ice in front a packed house of family and friends, but we completed a sweep of the playoffs, 6-0.”
Benz, who is assisted on the Lions’ bench by his brothers (Greg and Chris), added: “It pleases us to see the hard work of the players come to fruition. We know how hard they work as we are the ones pushing them. They are working hard in practice, the weight room, the film room … so it’s a joy to see them succeed.”
There’s joy on the Saint Viator JV bench, too.
“What a great group of players we have on our JV team,” Benz said. “They were the regular-season champs losing only one CCHL game all year. Our JV coaching staff does a great job of keeping the players focused all year as well as developing players.
“We have some great leadership on that (JV) team that help guide the younger players.”
Saint Viator JV coach Vince Conenna added, “(It) truly (is) an amazing feeling winning the first DiCristina Cup in Viator history. Being the (No. 1) seed in the playoffs, we knew everyone was going to play their best hockey against us. The boys handled it tremendously, and stayed focused each game to sweep the playoffs.”
Conenna is assisted by Joe Cacerano and Mike Sabatino – all in their fourth year at the school. “Since day one our goal was to win the Catholic league. To win it with Joe and Mike is truly special,” Conenna said.
The Saint Viator varsity will lose nine players to graduation.
“We have some very talented, hard-working players on the JV level who are willing to do what it takes to win. They have now tasted success and are hungry for more,” Benz said.
Benz, 32, a Glenview resident is a sales analyst for CDW. He was a standout player years ago for Glenbrook South, as were his brothers.
Benz was the GBS assistant coach for two years, then co-head coach (with D.J. LaVarre) for three years at Loyola Gold. He also coached for the Glenview Stars for seven years.
Benz’ All-State playing career GBS was followed by time playing for DePaul University, then the Michigan Moose (AAHL) and Pennsylvania Blues (FHL).
Winning the Kennedy Cup and the DiCristina Cup is a “huge statement” for Saint Viator, Benz said.
The varsity is led by Mike Kissane, Mike Petrecca, Nick Chiappetta and Brian Lolli, among other players.
Kissane, the Kennedy Cup MVP, had 16 points throughout the playoffs, including three playoff hat tricks.
Saint Viator senior forward Connor Bauman was named to the Illinois team set to play in the 2019 America’s High School Showcase, which will be held April 11-15 in St. Peters, Missouri.
Saint Viator sent three players to play in the annual All-State Game in early-February: defenseman Brian Lolli, and forwards Connor Bauman and Jack Nimrod.
The All-State accolades are a “great recognition for their hard work, but also a testament to their teammates and the program,” Benz said. “Without talented and hard-working teammates they would not have had nearly as much individual success.”
This is the second year in a row that Viator has had three All-State players.
On The Bench With … Saint Viator Head Coach Tim Benz
Little-known Fact: “Am married to a lovely lady, Brett Benz.”
Favorite Stick Model: Original Easton Synergy
Hockey Skill You Are Most Proud Of: “Throwing hip checks.”
Funniest Player On Saint Viator: Sean Wagner
Best Student On Saint Viator: Art Sosin
Most Improved Player This Season: Nick Conenna
Possible Saint Viator Break-Out Star Next Season: Harout Torosian
Most Beneficial Drill in Practice: “I love flow drills, all of them.”
Time To Complete a 60-Second Drill – While Playing at GBS: 53 seconds
Time To Complete a 60-Second Drill – While Coaching at Viator: “Probably 100.”
Benz Brothers’ Coaching Magic … From Tim Benz:
“No magic here. Organization, preparation and hard-work are the key. Having organized film sessions, weight sessions and practices prepare our teams for success. All that’s left is for the players to execute on game day. My brothers and I have had the pleasure of having some great coaches as we were three-sport athletes in high school.
(Tim and Greg played football, hockey and baseball. Chris played football, hockey and lacrosse.)
“We take the good and the bad from all that we have learned from these coaches and programs and make it our own brand of coaching. So far we have had a little success; I hope it continues. We have also had the pleasure of adding Sal Calace, an ex-Fenwick standout goaltender to our coaching staff. He brings something to the table that myself, nor my brothers do, which is goalie expertise. He has been a tremendous help this year on our varsity staff.”
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.