Juniors Sam Salemi & Brian Raffone: ‘the best defensive pair in our league’
By Ross Forman – PREP was riding along late last season with one of the best teams in club history. They had a 14-5-3 regular-season record in the Champions League of the North-Central Division and with 31-points finished in a 4-team tie for first place.
PREP earned the No. 2 seed in the Illinois High School Hockey State Tournament, only behind Maine Township.
PREP – a mix of players from Prospect, Rolling Meadows, and Elk Grove – defeated the Cobras handily in their first state game, then faced No. 10-seed Lincoln Way. But PREP was upset, falling 2-1 to end its dream season and desire to finally skate at the United Center.
“Last season was special,” said PREP defenseman Sam Salemi. “We had 10 seniors last season and I became good friends with them. I was a sophomore and thought I did well. Being named assistant captain was special.
“The team had never been great, but I think we proved ourselves, but we didn’t do too well in state. We didn’t live up to our expectations.”
Not many outside of the Lincoln Way locker room predicted that upset, as last season’s PREP club was anchored by then-senior James Raffone and then-junior Owen Lewis, who had 28 and 20 points, respectively, in league play.
“We all remember losing in last season’s elite eight, which was really tough, especially since we were favored to win and out-played them throughout the game,” Salemi said. “But when the final buzzer sounded, ending the game … my heart broke.
“Right after that loss, I started working even harder every day – all with that loss in the back of my mind. I don’t want to go through that again.”
Salemi, 17, who lives in Mount Prospect and attends Prospect High School, is in his second season on PREP. He wears uniform No. 18, as did his dad, uncle, and cousin – and is defensive partners with fellow Prospect junior Brian Raffone.
Salemi formerly played for the Glenview Stars and Northern Express.
“I’m an offensive-minded defenseman and play the position the right way, I feel,” he said. “When I need to jump up in the play, I can, and I will. I also play a physical game; I like to take the body a lot.”
Salemi also is a team leader.
“I coached Sam at the Glenview Stars as a squirt and was patiently waiting for him as he entered high school,” said PREP head coach Nick Panos. “Sam has proven to be a young man of character, intelligence and talent. He brings the leadership and work-ethic that every coach hopes for from his top players.
“Sam never takes a shift off and leads by example, on and off the ice. Sam is equally talented on the offensive end as the defensive zone. He has great instincts and can see a play before it happens.”
Panos said Salemi and Raffone “have to be the best defensive pair in our league.”
The two once killed off about 40 seconds of a penalty by just passing to each other.
“I get the team up, or calm it down, if need be,” Salemi said. “I think the guys on the team look up to me, especially the younger kids, so I really want to show them the right way and give them some motivation.”
Salemi said his leadership skills were, in essence, handed down – from his dad, Nick.
Salemi also was the team captain for his Northern Express teams and often gave motivational pre-game speeches. “I feel I’m good at that,” he said.
Salemi’s star shined all season a year ago, particularly in the playoffs. In a game against offensive juggernaut Deerfield, Salemi stopped a 2-on-1 break with about 2 minutes left to play in regulation-time, sliding to poke-check the puck.
PREP won that game, 3-2.
Another noteworthy win last season for PREP was its 4-1 victory over Benet Academy, “which proved that we could play with any team in the state – and I think teams now know that,” he said.
Salemi certainly knows about winning. In the Central States U15 championship game for the Express, against the Chicago Jets, he scored the game-winning overtime goal. “It was 2-2. I got the puck at the blue line and there were screens in front of the net,” he said. “I took a shot from the right side and it went in off the left post.
“I was right by my bench at the time and just got clobbered. But that was an amazing feeling I will never forget. It was one of the best goals of my career.”
Salemi said his goal this season is to win the North-Central Championship and then advance further in the state tournament. “I want opposing teams to recognize that we’re a tough team for years to come,” he said.
Salemi said “it’s cool” playing on a Combined Team, especially getting to meet teammates who he likely never would have that chance. Such as, Elk Grove alum Dylan Sztuk.
Salemi plays for second base the Prospect baseball team, and he also enjoys Ultimate Frisbee and golfing.
“Baseball gives me patience and helps calm my aggression,” he said.
Salemi is undecided on his college plans, but is considering Illinois State University and Western Michigan, among others.
**Photos courtesy of Sam Salemi**
Slapshots With … PREP Defenseman Sam
It’s a Fact: “I love Star Wars movies … always have.”
Favorite NHL Team: Chicago Blackhawks
Favorite NHL Player: Quinn Hughes
Favorite Sports-Themed Movie: Moneyball
Favorite Pre-Game Meal: Steak
Celebrity You’d Like To Meet: Patrick Kane
Teammate Who You Could See As A Hockey Coach: Brian Raffone – “He loves the game, always has. He understands it, helps out. He can tell you what you’re doing right, where you need to improve. He helps everyone.”
Hardest Slapshot On Your Team: “Me.”
Most Accurate Shot: Brian Raffone
Fastest Skater: Josh Melachrinakis
Best High School Uniforms (other than PREP): New Trier Green
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.