York junior defenseman Frank Rosa put it as simply -- and massively understated -- as it could be put.
“It was a good year for York hockey,” Rosa said.
A good, history-making year. York reached the state title game for the first time in program history, guided there by coach Matt Boeing and his staff, and propelled there by players who believed, and some good old-fashioned hard work.
Way back in September, you’d have been hard-pressed to find anyone betting on York getting to the United Center in March. The Dukes graduated 12 seniors and their top two lines from last season; the cupboard wasn’t bare, but Boeing started the year with question marks.
“I got to know Matt during the preseason tournament,” New Trier coach Adam Cheris said. “He said ‘I don’t even know what I have this year. We have to figure it out’.
“Boy, did they ever figure it out. They found a system that worked and played around their stars, and had a great goalie, a great defenseman, and a great forward. And they worked so hard.”
Adam Kaczmarek, Rosa, and Frank Nicosia would be the players to which Cheris refers, and all three were cornerstone players. But talent alone only gets you so far. Team chemistry, players figuring out their roles, and leadership are also required, and that took a little time.
York started off a little rocky, losing a few early-season games they likely should have won, and not looking good doing it.
“We started off mediocre with a couple of losses, and a record around .500,” senior Mike Anderson said. “Then in November we lost to a couple of teams we probably shouldn't of lost to. That’s when (Boeing) set us down in the locker room and asked us why we wanted to be here, and what we wanted to do with the season. We all said we wanted to win state or at least get there and he said ‘well, you're going to have to earn it’.”
A 9:05 practice on a Monday night helped York turn its first corner.
“We skated for an hour and a half, we played some music, and we got excited about the season,” Anderson said. “After that I think we started to build character instead of hanging our heads, and I think that's what brought our team together.
“We all knew what we had to do. We got our attitudes in check and it changed everything. We didn't want to waste our last year of playing hockey.”
It was a different York team that took the ice when the new year arrived.
“We kind of took off right after the winter break,” Nicosia said. “We had a lot of guys from jayvee and I think they had to adjust to the speed of the varsity and that takes a little bit of time. And we had to acclimate as a team, chemistry-wise.”
Boeing and assistant coaches Nick Albergo and Scott Metz constantly retreated into the lab to experiment and tinker with lineups and personnel. And when they hit upon the right formula, and got buy-in from every Duke on the roster, York took off.
The Dukes went 8-2 in their final ten SHL regular-season games, including wins over Glenbrook North, Glenbrook South, Saint Viator, and back-to-back wins over Loyola.
“That’s when the kids started to believe they could really do something here,” Boeing said.
Nicosia agreed that the back-to-back wins over Loyola elevated expectations.
“Definitely. I thought ‘we’ve got something going here for sure’,” Nicosia said. “Everyone was working hard and everyone knew their role at that point. We were executing on every level.”
Building a culture of community and school support around hockey has Boeing’s first order of business, and he also wasn’t named SHL Coach of the Year this year for nothing.
“He just brings energy and he’s always encouraging us,” Rosa said of his coach. “Whether we believed or didn't believe he was always there, encouraging us to believe and trust in each other. People didn't think we were going to be very good but all the coaches just believed in us, and preached that if we all bought in and do what we were being taught to do, we'd be fine and we could go somewhere.”
York fell short in opening play of the SHL Cup tournament, losing two games to one against Glenbrook North. But the Dukes didn’t have to dwell on it for long.
Three days later, York won 5-2 over Lyons Township to open state tournament play, and beat Deerfield 3-1 five days after that.
On March 5 in a state quarterfinal, York took on a St. Ignatius team that had been beating the doors off teams. The Wolfpack were winners of 12 straight games heading into the game against York including the the Catholic League’s Kennedy Cup tournament finals over Providence Catholic.
York won 5-1 over St. Ignatius.
“We scored first in that game and for us, the thing all year was if we scored first we had a very good chance of winning,” Rosa said. “I think our record was like 10-2 when we scored first. So scoring first in that game was big.”
“We knew they’d be tough to beat,” Nicosia said. “But we got off to a quick start and got a goal early, and we took off from there.”
A fourth meeting against Loyola in a state semifinal came next. It’s tough to beat a team three times in a season, let alone four times, but that was the hill York had to climb.
A scoreless game through two-and-a-half periods finally saw a goal when Nicosia scored off an Eli Maurer assist with 7:32 remaining. Kaczmarek stood tall from there, Loyola pulled its goalie, and Rosa sent a long clearing shot into an empty net for a 2-0 York win.
A key element of the win over Loyola was the student fan section in the northwest corner of the stands. It was filled with York students, all wearing white,
“I couldn’t believe it when I looked out there,” Nicosia said. “They got excited about it and they all showed up. It was unbelievable.”
That crowd was just a precursor to the number of York fans that showed up at the United Center for the state title game against New Trier. Of an estimated 10,000 fans present, York fans were there in full force.
“It seemed like seventy-five percent of the crowd was wearing (York) green,” Nicosia said.
Boeing’s overarching goal has always been to build a hockey culture at York, with school and community support and interaction as a chief trait. The thousands of York hockey fans that showed up at the the United Center stood as an exclamation point stamped on Boeing’s goal.
“Playing for a state title was an awesome opportunity for the school and the community, not just for us,” Rosa said. “So getting that monkey off our back as a program was huge.”
Players on both teams had to shake off the jitters and intimidation factor connected to stepping out onto UC ice, where Blackhawks players they’ve idolized have won multiple Stanley Cups.
“It's a once in a lifetime thing,” Rosa said. “Honestly, it's almost hard to recall because it was such a dream for everyone. The treatment we got, the locker room we had, it was all just outstanding.”
Boeing knew nerves would be an issue and he simply asked his players to stick to the game plan.
“Oh, we preached all year was that it's just another game,” Boeing said. “So trust our game. We played our best hockey when we were comfortable in our own skin. Confidence comes from preparation and we watched a ton of film, so we knew exactly what we were getting ourselves into. And with 15 seniors, I think they were just prepared and ready for the game.”
The approach worked, as New Trier seemingly battled jitters to a larger extent than the Dukes, who came out flying, testing New Trier goaltender Drew Durdov from the start.
The fact that Durdov was named the game’s MVP after New Trier’s 2-0 win can only mean that York’s offense gave him plenty of chances to shine.
An official’s call early on won’t ever sit well with the York skipper. A Dukes goal was waved off in the first period, which would have put York up 1-0 in the game. And as previously mentioned, York’s season record in games they scored first in was 10-2.
Toss in a few more missed opportunities on quality scoring chances, and a goalie in Durdov who was locked in, and York wasn’t able to capitalize against New Trier.
“Ryan Booth had a couple of breakaways, Charlie Colantonio had a couple chances out there, and Nick Composono had a couple of chances out there for us,” Boeing said. “We were getting high quality chances.”
Kaczmarek was nothing short of phenomenal in the state title game. It wasn’t until New Trier’s Landon Douthit scored on a breakaway in the second period that the Trevians were able to solve Kaczmarek, and he stood on his head for York in his final high school hockey game.
“He’s so strong and tough to beat. We had some really good looks but he kept the game close,” Cheris said. “We had at least four breakaways and he stopped three of them.”
“Some of those saves he made were ridiculous,” Anderson said of Kaczmarek. “That kid is so athletic getting from post to post. He's so quick. He's a great goalie and I'm so happy we had him. We couldn't have gone this far without him.”
New Trier scored its second goal with five minutes remaining in the third period and the game played out. The level of disappointment York’s players and coaches experienced Sunday can’t be overstated, but the pride they feel for the history-making season the Dukes had won’t diminish with time.
In the locker room after the game, Boeing let his boys know it.
“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 will go far beyond their years.
“We’ll keep building teams around seniors like Mikey Anderson. He's been an absolute leader. He's a student athlete, he never gives up, works his tail off all of the time and he's just a competitor. We're trying to build a program around guys like him. And let everything else work itself out.”
York hockey now bids farewell to seniors Nicosia, Kaczmarek, Anderson, Eli Maurer, Ethan Coyte, Charlie Colantonio, Ryan Booth, Nico Ptak, Charlie Nahumyk, Luke Dizillo, Nick Composono, Daniel Costabile, Aaron Curry, Jack Maier, and Matt Moore.
“They've just been instrumental,” Boeing said of his seniors. “Every senior class donates what can be up to four years of their lives to the program, and blood, sweat and tears. And adversity. That means everything. We’ll miss the senior class more than they know.”
The York jayvee team won the jayvee state title this year, so the cupboard won’t be bare for Boeing and his staff next season. It will naturally be another long, tough slog for any team trying to reach the United Center, but Rosa plans on doing whatever he can to help York get back there.
“We just need to get the right group of guys again, work, hard, work in our systems, and hopefully we can do it again,” Rosa said. “I don't think you can walk into a season on the first day of practice and say we're going to play in the United Center. It will be another day-by-day thing, just working hard every single day.”