The De Smet Spartans face a tough task in the Challenge Cup championship game but they relish the opportunity to add to their hockey legacy.
De Smet (19-6-4) will play the St. Louis University High Junior Billikens (27-1) at 8 p.m. Tuesday (March 13) at the Scottrade Center.
De Smet coach Christopher Durso, a 1997 SLUH graduate, is in his first year leading the Spartans.
“We are definitely the underdog,” Durso said. “But, we’ve embraced that role throughout our season, and especially here in the playoffs over the last couple of weeks.
“The boys are pumped to be playing at Scottrade. There’s definitely a lot of buzz around the program.”
Everyone has worked hard to get to this game, Durso said.
“Our coaching staff has put in a lot of time and energy into making our program better top-to-bottom. It’s very rewarding to have some success early on in my first year,” Durso said. “Ultimately, this is not about me or the other coaches, however. The kids have put in the work and responded and earned every bit of the success.
“Really, that’s happened throughout our program — our junior varsity team was in the JV championship game and lost a close game to CBC, our varsity team is in the championship game, so we have a lot of good things happening within the program.”
SLUH won its only Challenge Cup title in 2013.
De Smet, which has 15 overall championships, last won the Cup in 2010.
The goal this season was to play for the title, Durso said.
“We began with the end in mind and our ultimate goal was to make it to Scottrade and win a championship,” Durso said. “But we talk all the time about toughness, good habits, and doing the day-to-day work that gets you to that ultimate goal. We do a lot of work on skills and details in practice. I think that has paid off for a lot of our guys.”
An early season trip helped set the tone for his Spartans, Durso said.
“At the beginning of the season, we took a team-building trip to Kansas City and had several practices and did some team-building activities on that trip,” Durso said. “As part of that, we asked all of the kids to fill out a questionnaire listing some goals, strengths, weaknesses and a number of other things.
“I read through those several times throughout the season, including the other day, and the responses are pretty remarkable. It’s great that so many of these young men have had the opportunity to achieve their goals this season.”
Getting the opportunity to play for the championship is important for his team and the school, Durso said.
“It’s huge for us to get back to the title game. There is such a rich tradition of excellence in this program and it really is incredible to be a part of that tradition,” Durso said. “After we won that CBC game, I received text messages, phone calls, and congratulations from people I don’t even know, but who’ve been a part of the rich tradition of De Smet Jesuit hockey.”
CBC was the four-time defending champion.
In the semifinals, De Smet rallied to overtake the Cadets.
De Smet lost the opener 5-1. It was not like the Spartans played a poor game, Durso said.
“I felt like the score in Game 1 was not indicative of how we played,” Durso said. “We had some uncharacteristic goals against. There were definitely some things we noticed that we wanted to clean up in game two. We addressed those during the week between games.
“The boys were disappointed, but there was still a lot of belief in the room. We addressed some things we didn’t like and then moved on to some positive things that we wanted to take into the next game.”
The Spartans won 5-2 in the second game of the series.
“We built off the positives from the first game and cleaned up the things we talked about during the week that needed to be cleaned up,” Durso said. “We made a minor adjustment to the lineup that really paid dividends for us.”
The victory forced a mini-game. De Smet prevailed 2-0 in the 10-minute session.
“Because the margin late in the second game was three goals, we were able to rest some players for the last part of the third period going into the mini-game,” Durso said. “I think the boys fed off of that rest and had some extra energy, adrenaline, and confidence from winning Game 2.
“During the brief intermission, we talked about trusting the game plan and executing it, so while they may have had some nerves and felt some pressure, they were able to fall back on the structure and systems that we’ve executed fairly well all season.”
Dan Kinzel got the first goal in the mini-game off a nice feed from Jack Estes. Nick Thorpe added the empty-net goal late after De Smet was able to kill off a penalty.
“That sent our bench and the student section of the crowd into a frenzy,” Durso said. “Beating CBC was big for our program. They have a great team, a great coaching staff and they played us tough all season. They deserve a lot of credit for their run of 17 straight championship games and four straight titles.
“For our seniors that was the first time they beat CBC in a regular season or playoff game in four years.”
However, Durso said his Spartans are not done.
“The boys are not satisfied just with beating CBC,” Durso said. “They want a championship. ”
They will have to play well to stop the Junior Billikens.
De Smet played SLUH three times this season and lost all three. The scores were 8-0, 9-1 and 3-0.
“Obviously, we weren’t happy with the results from any of those games,” Durso said. “I think there were some positives and we’ll review those with the kids when we do our video sessions this week.
“SLUH has a very talented team and their talent is deep throughout their lineup. They are also well-coached and execute their structure well.”
To win, the Spartans “will need to stick to our game plan,” Durso said.
He also said De Smet will need to “get a great game from our goaltender, Will Oliver, and find a way to figure out their goaltender.”
With spring break, Durso said the crowd size of Spartan followers may be down.
“The game is right in the middle of spring break, but we hope to have every student who is in town for the break at the game,” Durso said. “We are counting on the alumni to come out as well.”