Three years ago Detroit Catholic Central’s Rylan Clemons had his coming out party in the Division 1 semifinals scoring two goals as a sophomore. But three years ago began a frustrating period for the Shamrocks.
Playing for state championships is the norm as a Shamrock because that’s where both the bar, and the expectations sit when you wear the blue and white.
Since the 2016 semifinals, championship weekend was anything but. Brighton claimed two of them beating the Shamrocks, once in the finals that year, and in the semifinals), while beating Saginaw Heritage last season in the finals.
On Saturday at USA Hockey, Detroit Catholic Central claimed its 14th state championship with a 3-1 win over Saginaw Heritage.
“(Winning a state title) is never easy. It came down to the wire because we ran into hot goaltenders, and we would hit some posts. That’s what makes winning so tough this time of year,” coach Brandon Kaleniecki said.
“Our leaders, our seniors, our captains, they all stepped up and made big plays. That’s why we’re so fortunate to be sitting here right now.”
The road to USA Hockey was littered with wins for Catholic Central (29-1-1). The Shamrocks haven’t lost to an in state opponent in over 365 days, and haven’t had more than two losses to in state opponents in 730 days.
But, according to Carter Korpi that doesn’t matter.
“We were so close as a team, that if one person is going to get better, we all were. We are all confident in each other, and trust in each other. But we don’t focus on the regular season,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter. This does.”
Forward Mitch Morris said much of the same as he reflected on the win.
“It’s always hard with group of guys you play with one ice, when they lose it’s tragic. I’m really happy we all got to go out winners, but its bitter sweet,” Morris said. “You wish you could have done more, and I hope all the underclassmen that, that is the reason of why you play.”
Clemons has been one of the best players in Division 1 in the regular season, but he’s had a semi-quiet post-season. That changed in the first period when he gave the Shamrocks an early 1-0 lead.
While there was a delayed call on Heritage for too many men, CC had an extra attacker on the ice. Junior Kyle Gaffney fed the puck to Clemons on the near side.
As he was walking the puck into the offensive zone, he ducked an on coming hit and fended off a Hawk with his off hand. As they approached the net, he gathered his stick and roofed the puck to an opening about eight inches wide for a goal.
“It was honestly just reflexes,” Clemons, who won the tournament MVP said. “I just lucked into it.”
Heritage (28-3) goaltender Jack Jesko was peppered all night, much like Rochester United’s Domenico Munaco was the night before. Jesko faced 45 shots, and stopped 43 of them.
It not only helped keep Heritage in the game, but also puts him as fifth list for most saves in a championship game.
“Our boys kept battling until the end. You could tell all year long that Catholic Central was on a mission,” coach J.J. Bamberger said. “I have been involved with high school hockey for 17 years and haven’t seen a team as deep as they are.
“He gave us a chance to win. A couple of those saves were incredible. He’s been dialed in all year long. Sure, he’d like some goals back, but the best quality he has is goal amnesia.
“He never got down. Our Assistant coach Scott Turner really has worked with him on the mental aspect of the game. Jack competed on every single puck.”
One of those saves was a highlight play to remember midway through the second period. As CC Forward Zach Borchardt ripped a shot, Jesko bounced up from his butterfly position, and reach out to make the save.
The play was replayed on the video boards to the crowd who collectively said “wow” and then applauded the effort during the reset of play.
But Catholic Central didn’t stop shooting.
With 10:39 left in the third period, senior Luke Collins fired a shot on net that was deflected by fellow senior Ryan Marra for a 2-0 lead.
Heritage battled back with a goal late in the third period when they pulled Jesko for an extra attacker as Eddie Symons pulled the Hawks with one, 2-1. A few moments later, CC put in an empty net goal by Marra (his second) for 3-1 lead.
Even though Heritage didn’t win, the program has clearly been on the rise being in back-to-back state finals.
“It’s special for us as seniors to leave this legacy,” Jesko said. “I’m confident that the underclassmen can keep this going for us because they’ll be hungrier and stronger.
“For us, its hard to build a program here. We’re a public school and a school of choice. Our program is built through the youth programs here, the Junior Spirit. It’s really helped us make strides as a program,” Bamberger added.
“These guys are special group in every way. We opened the season with Brighton and the guys played well and played with composure. We never talked about coming back (to USA Hockey), but the work was put in the offseason.
“The way the guys showed up all year long and to play the way they did was simply outstanding. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”