New Trier’s Brendan Heneghan and York’s Frank Nicosia II now have a high school career-defining, whale of an accomplishment in common — both scored what counted as game-winning goals to get their respective teams to a state title game.
That’s an obviously rare feat but one that never happens in a vacuum.
“My linemates got it to me on a great forecheck. I have to give it to them,” Nicosia said after his game-winner in York’s 2-0 state semifinal win over Loyola. “Eli Maurer and Chuck Colantonio were down there, I was just sitting in front, and (Maurer) passed it right out to me.”
Heneghan can similarly thank teammate Tyler Smith, whose forecheck effort set up his game-winner in New Trier’s 4-2 semifinal win over Stevenson.
Acknowledging teammates and pointing outward instead of inward — that’s the exact kind of selflessness that the best hockey teams always possess.
This year’s Red Division state semifinal round of the Illinois Hockey State Championships featured four SHL teams, after a quarterfinal round in which 7 of the 8 teams came from the SHL. New Trier’s win over Stevenson in Wednesday’s first state semifinal game sent the Green team to the United Center on March 19, where York awaits after the Dukes’ 2-0 win over Loyola in the night’s second semifinal at The Edge in Bensenville.
Here’s the semifinal recap from Wednesday’s action:
York 2, Loyola 0
York coach Matt Boeing’s team made history in getting the program to its first-ever state title game. The Dukes take on a New Trier program making its 20th appearance in the state title game.
Goals from Nicosia and Frank Rosa gave York its 2-0 win over Loyola. A hot goalie behind a scrappy and skilled team can take that team a long way, and York goaltender Adam Kaczmarek has helped do just that for York this season.
Kaczmarek was perfect against Loyola, stopping all 24 shots sent his way. “To me, he’s the best goalie in the state,” Nicosia said.
Kaczmarek humbly passed credit along to his team for keeping him well-protected, and he couldn’t quite fathom what Wednesday’s defining moment meant to him.
“It hasn't really hit me yet. I won't lie, it's surreal,” Kaczmarek said. “The first time in program history — that’s just crazy.”
York (35-23-0) took on a team in Loyola (29-23-0) that topped Saint Viator 3-2 in overtime and won 2-1 over Glenbrook South to reach the semifinals. York won 3-1 over Deerfield and then stopped a hot St. Ignatius team 5-1 to reach the semi’s.
Wednesday’s win for York marked the fourth time in four tries that the Dukes beat Loyola this season.
“We have a lot of doubters and we're just trying to prove them all wrong,” York coach Matt Boeing said. “It feels good to prove them wrong. We have matched up really well against Loyola. We have similar teams, where we both kind of grind it out and scored those dirty goals.”
A back-and-forth game didn’t see a goal scored until mid-way through the third period. That’s when Maurer and Colantonio fought to keep the puck deep in York’s offensive zone, leading to a Maurer pass from behind the Loyola net to Nicosia, who buried it from point-blank range at the post.
“I just saw the net and wanted to hit it as hard as I can,” Nicosia said. “Fortunately, it went in.”
With little over a minute remaining in the game, Loyola pulled goaltender Bradin Haynie in search of a tying goal. But when a puck landed in front of York’s Frank Rosa in front of York’s net, Rosa effectively put the game away, sending the puck the length of the ice and into an empty net with 48 seconds left to play.
“We knew it was going to be a good match-up and an exciting game,” Boeing said.“The game was as great as expected, and we came out on top. Our goalie stood tall, and we finished when it mattered.
“Tyler Peiffle blocked two huge shots tonight on open nets, he grinded it out and came limping off the ice. Matty Moore and Frank Rosa were incredible out there in our D, blocking shots and tying up sticks. But everybody played great. And senior Charlie Nahumyk has been playing great for us, after we weren’t even sure where he fit on this team.
“I also want to give a shout-out to my assistant coaches, Nick Albergo and Scott Metz. We’re a three-man team.”
And it was a large, boisterous York crowd of fans in the lobby at The Edge, waiting for York’s players to emerge from the locker room.
“This feels really good,” Nicosia said. “We have a lot of alumni who are behind us and really happy about this. They're really excited for us.
“We knew we probably weren't the most skilled team this year, but we were going to outwork everyone and that's kind of what we stuck to all year. And it’s worked.”
New Trier 4, Stevenson 2
Twice New Trier fell behind to defending state champion Stevenson in Wednesday’s semifinal, and twice the Trevians found answers. But that’s pretty much the way the top-ranked team in Illinois has played all season.
“It’s all about not giving up,” New Trier’s David Wolff said. “We've been down here or there during the year and we never give up. When we get down, we don't let it have any effect on us, and keep fighting every single shift.”
New Trier is talented, to be sure, but it’s the fight in the dog that elevates this year’s team. Especially when that fight is in the forecheck.
“When we play an aggressive forecheck, it does a lot for us,” New Trier coach Adam Cheris said. “I barely slept the last three days, I’m up watching tape of Stevenson’s offense and trying to figure out what to do against it. And I thought our forecheck slowed them down tonight.”
Wolff, Brendan Heneghan, Butler Chessen, and Aidan Nolan scored a goal apiece for New Trier, whose team depth has carried the top-ranked Trevians to a 57-6-2 record with Wednesday’s win over second-ranked Stevenson (45-15-0).
Ethan O’Gradney gave Stevenson a 1-0 lead roughly a minute into the game, on a touch-ahead pass from Davis Jegers that sprang O’Gradney behind the defense and isolated him on New Trier goaltender Wyatt Schmidt.
New Trier tied the game on an Nolan’s goal at 8:39 of the first period, when he fired a shot from long-range that found its way through heavy traffic in front of Stevenson goalie Andrew Smoller. Tyler Baker and Henry Miller got assists on the play.
Stevenson again scored early into the second period to take a 2-1 lead when Will Harlow raced in from the blue line up the left side with a puck on his stick and streaked behind the net before depositing an unassisted wraparound goal at the 14:45 mark.
That’s when Wolff took his turn tying the game for New Trier. Three minutes after Harlow’s goal, Sam Shenton sent a puck from the point to the corner on the right side. Nolan was there to center it and Wolff one-timed it from the slot to make it 2-2 with 11:43 to play in the second period.
Heneghan’s goal came with 5:33 remaining in the second period and stood up as the game-winner. The lefty Heneghan curled from behind the net along the right corner, then spun and fired from near the top of the circle to give New Trier a 3-2 lead.
And Heneghan’s game-winner was set up thanks to teammate Tyler Smith’s forecheck effort to keep the puck deep. New Trier held its one-goal lead for most of the third period, holding off a Stevenson team that had scored 18 goals in its first three state playoff games.
Chief in that effort was defenseman Will Cusick, who spent nearly three quarters of the game on the ice in an ironman’s effort.
“The coaches told me I’d be playing a lot today and I knew I would be matched up against Jegers the entire game,” Cusick said. “He's the SHL Player of the Year and I knew it would be tough and it was. But we did what we had to do. We got it done.”
Chessen added a goal down the stretch after Stevenson pulled goalie Andrew Smoller.
New Trier won 8-2 over Hinsdale Central (31-17-1) and then 5-2 over Carmel (22-25-1) to reach the semifinals, while Stevenson won 6-2 over Evanston (38-18-5) and 8-5 over Glenbrook North (42-20-0) to reach Wednesday’s semifinal.
“We went down twice in the game so the key was staying positive,” Cusick said. “Coach (Cheris) wanted us to focus on staying positive the bench because if you implode, that's when things start to go wrong.”
“Cusick was a monster today,” Cheris said. “And the line with Wolff and Nolan really stepped up. Heneghan got a goal from the blue line — guys that don't normally score came through today and getting scoring from other guys is always a big deal.”
Cheris also wanted to tip his hat to Stevenson coach Tom Wood, who is retiring as the Patriots head coach.
"They showed such class tonight after the game and that starts with Tom. He's such a good guy," Cheris said. "He's done great things with that program and that he's going out with so many kids that won a state championship in that program is a special thing.
"It's unique because Stevenson is one of the few school programs in our league, where teachers are coaches and it's part of the school, as opposed to everyone else being a club. They've really done a good job of carrying that Stevenson message through to their players, and that's really been something that's been cool to see. Their coaches have been role models and they've obviously had a very positive influence on their players."