Then there were four… The Final Four. What started with 52 teams in Division-I, 41 in Division-II and 45 in Division-III, has been whittled down to a quartet in each Division. The journey began 114 days ago and over the course of 52 hours from Thursday at 5 p.m. to Saturday night, the remaining 12 teams will hash it out at USA Hockey Arena to determine who are the three champions of 2019-20 season.
Some will have a better shot than others, but looking at all three fields and how each team stacks up, a case could be made for every team remaining to claim a State Title. Here’s how…
Unofficially the youngest team remaining in D-I with 18 underclassmen on the roster, four of which are freshmen. They may be young, but 12 players return from a season ago where the Bulldogs were just one goal away from a trip to Plymouth. They’ve conquered that mountain in 2020 with a 5-1 win over Reeths-Puffer last Saturday and enter the Final Four with a sneaky amount of experience.
Fueled from the back end, Trevor Davis and Josh Froysland lead the offensive attack from the blue line with a combined 20 goals and 66 points. Davis is a fantastic two-way defender who gets up and down the ice with grace and Froysland provides a heavy shot from the point, getting pucks into the funnel, creating first- and second-chance scoring opportunities.
Brothers Luke and Logan Nickolaus as well as Mason and Brady Breit provide a ton of scoring options in BC’s top nine forwards. They’re quick, dynamic and can create offense in clevers ways, making something out of nothing.
The offensive zone isn’t where I worry with this group; it’s the opposite end of the rink. DCC is going to keep the Bulldogs in their own end for long periods of time. Can they defend in the D-zone and protect the house without taking costly penalties? The Shamrocks will certainly put them to the test in the semifinals and if they survive that, both Howell and Heritage can apply similar pressure on that end of the ice. Levi Sall has been good for BC but in order for them to win the State Title, he’ll have to be great against the best offenses and most talented shooters that Byron Center has faced all year.
It’s been an “us against the world” mentality on the west side of Livingston County. The Highlanders have played with a chip on their shoulders all season long and now they’re looking to put an exclamation point on the 19-20 campaign. Overshadowed by neighbors Hartland (2018 and 2019) and Brighton (2017 and 2018) with back-to-back title runs in recent memory, Howell has arrived in the spotlight ready to make its mark on the state tournament.
They’re motivated and confident; a dangerous combination for opponents to go against, starting with Saginaw Heritage in the Semifinals. Coach Rocky Johnson’s squad already traded blows with the Hawks to close out the regular season, as they topped Heritage 5-3 on Feb. 21st. Can they do it again?
Dominic Rossi, Stefan Frantti and Steven Miller are a three-headed monster offensively. The trio has combined to score half of the Highlanders’ goals this season, including eight of the team’s 19 postseason tallies. They have moments of pure electricity where Rossi, Frantti or Miller can strike on the rush and put opponents on their heels. If defenders manage to slow them down, secondary scorers like Everett Pietila, Brent Wolf and Cam Sturos can sneak into the play for a quick strike as well.
There’s too many threats to account for in Howell’s lineup which bodes well because that offense will have to throttle down if it’s going to win a State Title. Outscoring opponents and winning in high-scoring fashion may be their only way to get the job done against the three remaining teams.
They’ve played second fiddle in 2018 and 2019, watching someone else celebrate a Division-I state championship. There may not be a more motivated group in the field than Heritage in pursuit of its first D-I title.
Brady Rappuhn is one of the best pure goal scorers in the state and he’s had a senior year to remember, finishing second in scoring with 82 points during the regular season. As lethal as Rappuhn can be with the puck on his stick, I think Matthew Cole and Ethan Houck get a little bit overlooked. Cole is constantly making plays and distributing the puck all over the rink while Houck may be the most complete forward of the bunch. Nonetheless, Heritage’s top line is good enough to keep up with any team in D-I, and then John-Michael Watson and Jacob Deitsch on the back end make for a loaded starting five.
Connor Krauseneck and the next five in the lineup will have to have a monumental weekend for the Hawks to get over that second-place hump though. Krauseneck is a very effective depth guy for coach J.J. Bamberger’s scheme but that entire second line, along with the third line and second defensive pair will have to be near perfect while logging a lot of minutes. With strong contributions from the heart of the roster and Jacob Winters’ two biggest games, the Hawks could finally conquer the mountaintop and claim the D-I championship.
It’s the Shamrocks’ title to lose. DCC has won four of the last six Division-I titles and enter the Final Four for an eighth straight appearance. They are deep, they are talented, they are the most complete team in the Division. Elite-level goaltending, highly-touted defensemen and standout forwards with first-class coaching to boot. They are Goliath and I don’t know that any of the three David’s can bring them down this time.
Brendan Miles, Enzo Tarducci, Kaden Hemme, Gordie Husted and Eli Brown round out the best defensive corps I’ve ever seen. Not only are they gifted but they are so sound defensively as well. Louis Finnegan and Adam Blust’s combined 1.28 goals-against average is every bit a tribute to the defensive effort as it is a credit to the goalies. They’ve taken turns between the pipes and the group in front of them has been nothing short of outstanding. CC is in a class of its own when it comes to defense and that’s what sets them apart from not just the teams left in this Division, but everyone else in the entire state.
That alone is enough to defend their title as state champs, but then Kyle Gaffney and Dylan Dooley put icing on the cake for good measure. They lead an offensive attack that plays fast and has been an immense challenge for anyone to keep up with all season long. David could hang on for a while and compete, but Goliath has the potential to run away with his 12th Division-I State Title.
A chance for the first three-peat in Division-II since Trenton did it from 2008 to 2010. Hartland hasn’t completely dominated like it has the previous two seasons, but that hasn’t stopped them from booking a fifth consecutive trip to Plymouth.
The Eagles’ last two title runs were fueled by some stellar talent and flashy playmakers. While the ‘19-20 squad has some impressive top-end guys, they may be out-gunned for the first time at this stage of the tournament. Guys like Dakota Kott, Adam Pietila, Kieran Carlile and Andrew Larson are fantastic but the other three remaining teams may just have a little bit more depth at both ends of the rink.
The team as a whole has a much grittier feel to it than previous groups and they are definitely capable of another title, it’ll just come in a much different way. Coach Rick Gadwa will get contributions from his top guys like Kott and Pietila, but a path to a third championship will require a grind-em-out type of effort from the entire lineup. They’re fully capable of playing — and winning — that style of hockey in the final two games but it’ll be close, low-scoring, nail biters to get it done.
Joey Cormier. Period.
The Trojans have navigated one of the toughest roads in D-II three years in a row. The first two trips came up just one game shy of achieving their goals and Cormier will do everything in his power to change the script in his third and final crack at a ring.
They’ve gone through the No. 10, No. 16, No. 24 and No. 1 teams in the Division and will have to bust through the No. 5 team to get a shot at the No. 2 or No. 3 team in the finale. No one will feel sympathetic to Trenton for its rough road traveled but surviving the path and coming out the other end with a championship would be the ultimate conquest.
Cormier will keep the Trojans in the game against anyone left, but scorers like Hunter Allen, Ethan Holt and Nicklas Millhorn will have to finish on their opportunities when they come. Collin Preston is my favorite of the bunch, and when he gets involved scoring goals, blocking shots or making plays, it energizes the entire team.
Coach Chad Clements’ team is most dangerous on the rush but they’ll have to walk a fine line between pushing the pace and forcing plays. Sometimes, they get caught trying to make that extra move or fancy play and run into trouble. As long as they can get around defenders and put pucks on net, they’ll be in the mix at the end.
Michigan High School Hockey’s best kept secret. I don’t think the other three teams know much about Marquette and what this bunch brings to the table. The unknown can be scary this late in the season, as opponents are going to have to figure out the Redmen on the fly.
Psssst, by the way… They’re really good.
All four losses are by just one goal and they’ve given up two goals or less in 23-of-28 games. Good luck scoring on this group and Heaven help ya if you’re going to beat them. Everyone on this team scores. From Gaetano Cammarata to Lucas Guertin, Jake Garrow to Jakob Peterson, I’m not kidding when I say everyone is a threat to put the puck in the net.
Brennan Hakkola and Liam Beerman appear to be alternating starts, even into the postseason, so it’ll be interesting to see who gets the net in Plymouth. Regardless, both have put up amazing numbers and confidence is high in both netminders. If there’s a weakness in this group, I can’t find it and odds are it’ll take at least two periods for opponents to locate it as well. By then, the Redmen could have the game in hand with eyes on a State Title.
Everything has gone according to plan for the Warriors. They have breezed through the playoffs, outscoring opponents 37-3 through the first four rounds. It gets significantly harder to finish the run with a win and a championship but if there’s one team capable of turning it up a notch, it’s Rice.
Nick Marone: The goal scorer.
D.J. Dixon: The playmaker.
Ryan Murphy: The two-way forward.
That trio adds up to be the most complete line in Division-II and a threat to score every time they’re on the ice. Sprinkle in Max Brown and Dylan McNulty for good measure and the Warriors can come in waves.
Cooper Duncan is my unsung hero of this team, as he’s been steady in net for Rice backstopping them to victories over some of the toughest opponents they’ve faced all season. As long as Nick Dippre and Alex Andoni can keep the game simple in front of Duncan and get pucks out of the D-zone, the Warriors could easily dictate the flow of the game.
They’ve got a wealth of talent at all three levels and overflowing with confidence. Rice has a full head of steam and it’s going to be tough to stop this train.
They’re playing their best hockey at the right time. Gabriel Richard steamrolled its way through Regionals without allowing a single goal against and then overpowered Chelsea 4-1 in the Quarterfinals.
Nathan Vazquez and Austin Harrison are a really solid one-two punch, scoring eight of the Pioneers’ 20 postseason goals. They could quite possibly carry the team to a State Final but the other three teams have a significant advantage when it comes to depth. Vazquez can take over a game in the span of a couple shifts and Harrison can put others in positions to succeed.
If they can play at their best and Drew Adams continues to perform the way he has been between the pipes, the Pioneers have a good shot at upsetting their way to a championship. Dow, Country Day and Calumet have some high-powered offenses that will throw a ton of pucks in Adams’ direction. He has big-game ability and has put together some great performances, but two of his best outings could spell Gabriel Richard’s first State Title.
May be D-III’s team of destiny with all three playoff wins being decided by two goals or less and a triple-overtime thriller over Grand Rapids Catholic Central in the Quarterfinals. A survive-and-advance mentality when a team continually finds ways to battle and win can create a locker room filled with confidence.
Luke Blasy has been the driving force behind the Chargers all season long and he scored four of the team’s five goals to propel them out of the Regional rounds. He is definitely capable of continuing that momentum through the Semifinals and even in the Championship but in order to take the title, Dow will need significant contributions from others.
Billy VanSumeren and Ryan Pomranky seized key moments in the Quarterfinals against GRCC, and others like Lucas Churchfield, Alec Newton and Austin Ieuter will also be depended on to play significant roles in Plymouth. If they can play fast, and Blasy continues the tear he’s on, Dow is capable of anything in this Final Four.
Division-III this year is oozing with talented, top teams given the seasons that the other three teams put together, plus Grosse Pointe South, Cranbrook, Houghton, U-D Jesuit and Forest Hills Central. I think because of that depth, a lot of people — myself included — overlooked the fact that the two-time reigning D-III champs are loaded yet again in pursuit of a three-peat.
Gino Sessa and Jacob Thomas are pillars on the blue line, as two of the top D-men in the Class of 2020. Both Sessa, Thomas and Mike Rosczewski are a four-year guys, and Noah Thewes is a three-year senior. How many D-corps do you know of with that much experience and that much success under their belts? This group has been there, done that, and returned to do it again. Why wouldn’t they be the favorite to do it a third time?
I have some mild concerns about what happens if an opponent can keep the Yellowjackets in their own zone for an extended period of time. However, there isn’t a team in any division that is as accomplished, as seasoned, as experienced, as prepared for the environment that is Plymouth and the State Finals than Country Day.
Talent alone, I don’t think anyone left stacks up to Calumet. How that talent performs under pressure on the biggest stage will prove to make or break the Copper Kings though.
Tanner Rowe is tendered in the North American Hockey League as a junior, and in my opinion, the most well-rounded player in our game this season. Dean Loukus is an Ontario Hockey League Draft pick of the Saginaw Spirit. Scott Loukus is 22 months older but equally as dynamic and dangerous as his cousin. Alex Studebaker has re-written the Calumet hockey record books. Alex Mattila, Gabe Coppo, tell me when you want me to stop...
It’s not just a talented bunch, but an elite one, and the community of Calumet is absolutely itching for its first State Championship in 12 years. They cannot win on talent alone though, and I worry what happens to this group in the face of adversity. The Copper Kings are at their best when they’re out in front with a lead and can dictate the pace. However, that luxury will be tough to come by with stiff competition in the Final Four. What happens when playing from behind or trying to keep up with an evenly-matched opponent?
Punch and counterpunch. How Calumet adapts to the situation and adjusts to opponents will determine whether the favorite can finish.
Who’s winning and why? Let’s talk about it on Twitter and tell me who ends the season with a W.
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