CHICAGO -- Almost immediately, York’s offense tested New Trier goaltender Drew Durdov, who made a few fine first-period stops at the very outset of Sunday’s Illinois Red Division state title game.
After one of those stops, a rebound was there for the taking, with one side of the net wide open. But a York player just missed on it.
At intermission, televisions in both locker rooms at the United Center played highlights from the periods, which included replay of the quality scoring chance that York had just barely missed on.
After seeing the replay, New Trier coach Adam Cheris turned to Durdov. “That was closer than I thought it was,” Cheris said.
Durdov, who attended church at 7 a.m. Sunday morning, had a simple explanation.
“You know,” Durdov said, “some days it’s good to have God on your side, and today was one of those days.”
With or without divine intervention, Durdov was terrific in New Trier’s 2-0 win. And if he hadn’t been named MVP after the win, and York had instead won the game, the MVP would have likely been York goaltender Adam Kaczmarek.
“There's no doubt in my mind it would've been Adam,” York coach Matt Boeing said. “Arguably, it could've been Adam even though we lost. But Durdov played phenomenal.”
Both goalies were simply outstanding against a pair of offenses that put 28 shots on net apiece, many of which were of the extremely high-quality variety.
The United Center Factor
What high school teams experience in a state title game at the United Center is likely unmatched in any other high school sport. It’s wasn’t just the magnitude of the event and the estimated 10,000-plus fans that showed up on Sunday; it was also playing in the Blackhawks’ home stadium, dressing in a pro locker room, and skating out onto the same ice where players with names like Toews, Kane, and Hossa have won Stanley Cups.
If all of that doesn’t give a kid a case of pre-game jitters, somebody better check that kid for a pulse.
“I couldn’t sleep at all the night before the game,” New Trier captain Will Cusick said. “I had so many nerves, butterflies in my stomach. Coming out of that locker room for the first period and seeing all the fans there —it was a lot. I was shell-shocked.”
York’s Mike Anderson also spoke to what every player likely felt upon first stepping out onto United Center ice.
“You take a couple laps and look around and it's just unreal being where your idols have played,” Anderson said. “It was great.”
Players also had to adjust to a few things they weren’t necessarily used to.
“At first, it was pretty uncomfortable because the ice is pretty hard and your skates don't really grab the ice as well,” New Trier forward Butler Chessen said. “I thought I was going to fall right when I stepped out on the ice. It's also really hot compared to the rinks in our league. It's really bright and hot. It made me uncomfortable. But after the first period I was able to lock in."
The box score shows that New Trier’s Landon Douthit and Aidan Nolan scored goals and teammates Chessen, Henry Miller, and Tyler Baker had assists for a team that won its 16th state title in program history.
A scoreless first period saw Kaczmarek and Durdov take turns starring in their own highlight reels. Whether they were making kick saves, saves on breakaways, stopping shots and then stopping follow-up rebound shots on bang-bang plays, both goalies shined.
Both coaches agreed that York had the better of the first period before New Trier found its game in the second.
“We weathered a few really good shots from York but towards the end of the first period I thought we started to find some life and find ourselves,” Cheris said. “In the second and third periods I thought we carried the play more the way we wanted to.”
York’s first period included a goal waved off by the officials, some near-misses, and a goalie in Durdov making exceptional stops on a few prime Dukes scoring chances.
“Drew was just in lock-down mode,” Cheris said. “Before the game I just felt like he was going to do something special. He had a calm about him that was amazing.”
Meanwhile, York had to deal with some top-shelf scoring chances gone awry and a waved-off goal.
“Sure, those things could've changed the direction of the game,” York defenseman Frank Rosa said, “but you can always talk all day about what ifs.”
New Trier had problems of its own dealing with Kaczmarek, who made a huge stop on a Chessen shot during a New Trier penalty kill late in the first period.
“I started celebrating. I thought Butler scored on that shorty,” Douthit said. “But instead it was ‘how did (Kaczmarek) stop that?’ He was amazing. But we stayed positive and knew we had to find a way to beat him.”
Boeing wasn’t surprised at his senior goaltender’s performance.
“He was really dialed in over the last few weeks of practice, and that set the tone for everything,” Boeing said. “He's an absolute gamer. He's always talking trash in practice to bring the level of competition up, and making our players better by challenging them.”
It wasn’t until Chessen put yet another one of his stamps on yet another playoff hockey game that New Trier finally solved Kaczmarek, at 10:15 of the second period. Chessen blocked a shot, took a few strides with the puck along the left side into the neutral zone, then chipped a pass over to Douthit charging up center ice.
Douthit did what he always does on breakaways.
“He always goes five-hole,” Cheris said. “His hands are so quick and that shot was perfectly-placed.”
And now for the rest of his life, Douthit can say he scored the game-winning goal in a state title game, though the magnitude of the moment was tough to negotiate.
“To be honest, I didn’t know what to do,” Douthit said. “I didn’t know how to celebrate. It didn’t feel real.”
From that goal to the mid-way through the third period, the tension truly began to mount on both benches. With nine minutes left in the game, Cheris sidled over to assistant coach Matt Kenyon and asked him a question.
“I said ‘how are you doing? You don’t look so good,” Cheris said. “He said ‘I’ve never been more nervous in my life’.”
Of course, Cheris himself couldn’t bear to glance up at the clock during the game’s final two minutes. “I just couldn’t look,” he said. “I was stunned when someone finally said ‘twenty seconds left’.
York pushed hard for an equalizing goal and earned a 13-10 edge in third-period shots. But with five minutes remaining in the game, New Trier found a dagger.
The play started with defenseman Tyler Baker intercepting a York pass near his blue line and taking the puck up the heart of the ice before laying it off to Henry Miller. Miller took it from the mid-slot to his right and then backhanded a perfect feed back across to the far post, where Nolan buried it.
York (35-24-0) continued to fight but the mountain was simply too high. The Dukes were naturally disappointed with the loss but after earning its first-ever appearance in a state title game and peaking down the season’s stretch, they left the ice with heads held high.
“It was disappointing right off the bat, but after talking about it in the locker room, we know that making it this far was just crazy compared to how we thought we might be at the beginning of the season,” Anderson said.
Rosa loved the way his team defied expectations this season.
“I think we were projected to finish eighth in the SHL,” Rosa said. “so nobody expected us to make it to state. I don't think we were expected to win against Saint Ignatius Loyola.”
York beat Saint Ignatius 5-0 in a state quarterfinal and won 2-0 over Loyola in the semifinals to reach the United Center. Boeing — the Coach of the Year in the SHL — gave a post-game speech to his troops that wasn’t without emotion.
“It was pretty much just how much we love them and how proud we are of them for all they accomplished,” Boeing said. “York had never made it to a state final ever at the varsity level. So them showing us that it's possible, and paving the way for future Dukes to come, and how much impact they've made — all of that will go far beyond their years.”
York bids farewell to 15 seniors from this year’s team, including all-SHL players Frank Nicosia and Kaczmarek, both of whom were also named AHAI all-staters. York’s other seniors were Anderson, Eli Maurer, Ethan Coyte, Charlie Colantonio, Ryan Booth, Nico Ptak, Charlie Nahumyk, Luke Dizillo, Nick Composono, Daniel Costabile, Aaron Curry, Jack Brown, and Matt Moore.
Winning a State Title
Cusick was the Ironman of high school hockey down the stretch, routinely seeing torturous levels of ice time throughout the playoffs. Sunday was no different.
“He’s just been a warrior. York took that timeout with 1:38 left and Cusick was exhausted,” Cheris said. “But when he came over to the bench he said ‘you’re not taking me out of this game’. But it wasn’t like we were going to give him that choice. He wasn’t coming out anyway. But I loved his mentality.”
As time ticked down, the weight of the moment also hit New Trier forward Aleks Cheris just before one final draw with one second remaining in the game. He glanced over and saw the entire New Trier bench prepping for celebration mode.
“They were jumping up and down, unstrapping their helmets and getting ready,” Cheris said. “That image will always stay in my head.”
The final buzzer sounded and the predictable chaos of winning a state title ensued for New Trier Green; sticks, helmets, and gloves tossed all over the ice, fans gone berserk, and one of the most dangerously violent celebratory dog-piles you’d ever want to see on the ice, with players racing up, leaving their feet, and bodies flying parallel to the ice and landing on top of the pile.
Durdov was at the bottom of that pile along with Chessen and Cusick, who has one specific memory he’ll always go back to.
"Getting on the dog pile, and hugging Butler Chessen,” Cusick said. “Me and him have had a long road since sophomore year on Green and he's become one of my best friends. So I'll definitely remember that moment."
The two seniors were co-captains for Green this season.
“(Cusick) does a lot of the speeches and I'd say I lead by example more,” Chessen said. “So I think it was a great combination between the two of us that really helped our team out.”
The memory of the aftermath that Douthit will take with him involved his head coach. After an unprecedented run of success under long-time coach Bob Melton, Cheris took over as head coach this year under the weight of what can seem like impossibly high standards set at New Trier.
New Trier won the SHL regular season, the SHL Cup tournament, and the state title this year. The Green team was top-ranked all season and finished with a downright silly season’s record of 59-6-2.
Green’s first-year head coach delivered.
“After the game I was able to give coach one of the jerseys we had made that said ‘Coach Cheris’ on the back,” Douthit said. “It was his inaugural season as coach and we were able to win every high school tournament in Illinois that there was to win. I pulled the jersey out after the game in the locker room and it was great to be able to give it to him.
“He allowed us all to play with so much confidence and he stayed positive no matter what happened. He never yelled if you came off the ice after not making a play you should have made. It was always ‘don’t worry about it, you’ll make it next time’. That positivity really helped our team this season.”
Cheris also got to coach his son Aleks in his senior year.
“I’ve made friendships on this team that will last for my entire life,” Aleks Cheris said. “And I'm just so grateful for everything and happy for my dad. I’m so proud of him.”
New Trier Green’s first-year skipper hasn’t slept much in the last month, unable to switch his brain off of coaching mode, so the final horn at the United Center was a relief.
“Bob Melton is a great guy, amazing, and we all know what he did for years at New Trier,” Cheris said. “So coming into this year, who knew what we could do? Would we be able to handle it? It was a challenge for me and the team, and they wanted the challenge. So to go wire-to-wire the way we did and win every major tournament we were in — that doesn’t happen often, and it’s unique. But we were all in it together and it feels awesome to get it done.
“When it was finally over, it was such a mix of incredible emotion. Having coached these kids for the better part of twelve or fourteen years made it even that much more emotional. Taking it all in was amazing and it just went by too fast.”
Cheris applauded the line of Alex Furton, Ian Finger, and Owen McAdams for slowing down a York top line featuring all-state forward Nicosia. He also pointed to a final hard day’s work put in by captains Chessen and Cusick.
“Landon had chances, and Nolan’s goal was really nice,” Cheris said. “Tyler (Smith) probably had seven or eight scoring opportunities and Aleks probably had six or seven, and that’s what we expect from those guys.
“Normally when they get those kinds of looks, it’s a lop-sided game. If Kaczmarek’s not in net it’s probably a different game. He really stood strong. Defensively we were getting pucks out and I thought Sam Shenton played one of his best games. He’s an unsung hero who stabilizes the D and when he’s on, he’s really good. And Tyler Baker had a good game again. And we had two great goalies this year in Drew and Wyatt Schmidt.”
Cheris will bid farewell to 13 seniors, including all-SHL players Douthit, Cusick, and Smith. Cusick, Chessen, Cheris, Smith, Douthit were all AHAI all-staters this season. Also graduating will be Kitchel Snow, Joey Rabinowitz, Baker, Finger, Furton, McAdams, Miller, and Shenton.
A Final Word
In 2017, Chessen sat in the United Center as a sixth-grader and watched his neighbor, Jack Raith, score four goals for New Trier against Providence in that year’s state championship game.
“I said to my family, ‘I want to play in the state championship when I’m older,” Chessen said.
On Sunday morning, before leaving for the UC to take on York, Chessen had a visitor.
“On Sunday morning, (Raith’s) mom brought over the tie he wore for that game, his lucky shamrock tie, and I got to wear it.”
On his way out the door, Chessen also leaves with an appreciation for everything New Trier hockey has given to him.
“It taught me a lot,” Chessen said. “The physical side just kicks your butt, every day, and it’s taught me a lot about sportsmanship — shaking hands after a war on the ice. And about being a leader for your teammates and also a role model to little kids. There are so many little kids in the community that look up to New Trier Green, and how we inspire them to play hockey. Just like I was inspired as a kid.”