Jr. Golden Knights’ 16U AA team brings Vegas USA Hockey national crown
While the Vegas Golden Knights came up just short of a Stanley Cup championship last June, they may want to look at the area’s youngsters for motivation this year.
Back on April 8 in Plano, Tex., the Jr. Golden Knights’ 16U AA team captured a USA Hockey national championship, winning the 1A division of the 16U Tier II tournament in a thrilling 2-1 shootout over the Atlanta Jr. Kings.
“At Nationals, we had set ourselves a realistic goal of making it to the medal round,” said Vegas 16U head coach Wally Lacroix. “We reached small goals throughout the season in preparation for Nationals. What I love most is how the young men bought into our system and raised their compete levels when we needed it most. They played with an unmatched level of responsibility.
In Plano, a Dallas suburb, Heath Mensch led the 1A division with 12 points (six goals, six assists), scored Vegas’ lone goal of regulation, a power-play tally late in the third period, and then added the Jr. Golden Knights’ clinching goal in the shootout, sealing the victory.
Just 38 seconds into overtime, it appeared Vegas had ended the game, but the apparent game-winning goal was disallowed because the Atlanta net had been dislodged from its moorings.
After the win, Lacroix shared a moment in the locker room with his team.
“I explained to the young men how special this was, and I thanked them for believing in the coaching staff,” said Lacroix. “I told them to never forget this moment and they will always have it on their resume. It gives us a strong feeling of belief, but I believe all returning players understand that this wasn’t given to them and that they have to earn it. Repeating is never easy, so we will be back to work in the fall trying to improve.”
The Jr. Golden Knights’ 16U AA team is made up of forwards Mick Corrigan, William Jacob, Anthony Mazza, Mensch, John Purdy, Tristan Toth, Jacob Underhill, Ian Williams and Joshua Williamson; defensemen Caden Berninger, Trent Carter, Sean Kedra, Tristan Nelson and Ethan Parsons; and goaltenders Colton Miller and Zackery Ortolano. Todd Owen serves as the team’s assistant coach.
In the national championship game, Ortolano made 35 saves in regulation and turned away three of Atlanta’s four shooters in the shootout.
“Ortolano was amazing for us all weekend,” Lacroix said. “He stepped up the entire weekend, had a great tournament and kept us in there. Every time that we thought we were in trouble, he came up with a big save for us.”
In reflecting on the season, Lacroix said he realized his squad could compete for a national championship back in February.
“Presidents Day weekend, we beat a central Alberta team with a record of 25-1-5 in the championship game, and that’s when we realized how special of a group we had,” said Lacroix. “We still had a lot of work to do from that point on but knew that if we brought the compete level to Nationals, we could make it to the medal rounds. The championship game was extremely intense but as a group, we never lost focus and competed until the end.”
“This is a great accomplishment for not only the players, coaches and their families, but the Vegas Jr. Golden Knights club as a whole,” added City National Arena director of hockey operations and assistant manager Robbert McDonald. “Winning a national championship at any level is a difficult task, and we’re very proud of this team. As a club, it shows our young players what can be accomplished with hard work and being committed to getting better. To date, our city’s hockey is booming with great participation numbers from youth to adult, and a feat such as this only helps further that interest throughout hockey in our city.”
Adding to this remarkable story in Vegas is the fact that the Jr. Golden Knights’ 14U AA team advanced to the semifinals of their national tournament in South Bend, Ind.
Vegas lost to the KC Mavs 3-1 on April 7 to end their run in the 1A division.
Head coach Matt Johnson said he was amazed by how far his team came this season.
“Well, just looking at where we were at in August compared to where we are now is night and day,” Johnson said. “From top to bottom, each player improved. Most importantly, they came together as a team and worked hard for each other. What I like most about this team is the way they came together and constantly pushed each other to be better.
“We didn’t have a superstar. Each game, it was someone new, either a goalie making a big save, the offense from our defensemen or our forwards all contributing.”
Earlier this season, Johnson admitted to having an inkling that competing for a national championship was not out of the question.
“I would say probably right around Silver Sticks in Las Vegas (in December),” Johnson said. “We made it to the championship and lost to San Diego Saints, but that tourney was our turning point and when the players and staff realized what we had.”
The Jr. Golden Knights’ 14U AA team includes forwards Kai Blum, Ken Curtis, Jack Edlin, Kevin Hanly, James Knurbein, Conner McLeod, Austin Moline, Keegan Morse, Ryan Pavlinsky, John Sinagra and Micah Williamson; defensemen Mykah Carter, Gio Fiore, Colton Fleitz, Matt Lackas, David Salcido and Cole West; and goalies Max Madison and Jon Ng. Johnson was joined on the team’s staff by assistant coach Tom Lackas and team manager John Sinagra.
And despite bowing out in the national semifinals, Johnson noted the positives that can be taken from the tournament.
“Just the complete effort from everyone, each game,” Johnson said. “We stressed being consistent all season and we finally started playing that way. We won more board battles and we worked hard in the ‘D’ zone.”
Johnson also said a Nationals run like this can potentially help in terms of momentum for the 2019-20 season.
“Well, you would think with the success of our Pee Wee AA team winning Silver Sticks and playing in the semifinals of the Quebec International Pee Wee tournament, the Bantam AA team playing in the Silver Sticks championship and losing in the semifinals at Nationals and the 16U AA winning Nationals that parents would realize what they have in their own backyard,” said Johnson. “Realistically, if everyone stayed in town, our chances to win a national championship at the Bantam AA level would be extremely high. Sometimes, people are in such a rush, and they feel they need to play AAA.
“Sometimes, being a top player on a AA team provides more of a benefit than being a filler on a AAA team, but it is kind of the curse of Vegas hockey right now. We have to wait for tryouts to see who stays, who leaves, and who moves into town.”
Top photo/Al Aleman
— Matt Mackinder
(May 7, 2019)