The De Smet Spartans pushed the St. Louis University Junior Billikens to the limit but fell just short in the Challenge Cup championship game.
SLUH defeated the Spartans 3-2 in double overtime in the Midstates Club Hockey Association’s top tournament that was played at Enterprise Center.
It marked the second conseuctive year the Junior Billikens thwarted De Smet’s championship ambitions.
Coach Chris Durso said his Spartans left everyone on the ice.
“Our guys showed a lot of heart and passion during the game,” Durso said. “Afterward, I was just so proud but also devastated for them. It will take a bit of time to get over the disappointment, but I think we have a lot to be proud of as a group.”
The Spartans were missing top defenseman Justin Reynolds, who also is one of the team captains. Reynolds was out for the game due to an injury suffered against Chaminade in the semifinals.
“It was great to see other players step in to fill a big absence,” Durso said. “I think shift after shift we just kept working hard for each other. The game had momentum shifts, it had great goaltending at both ends.
“It was really an honor to be a part of such a terrific hockey game.”
De Smet finished 19-7-3 in its season in which the Spartans attempted to claim their first Challenge Cup title since 2010 and 15th overall crown. SLUH ended with a 23-3-2 record, winning its third overall title to go with a 2013 championship.
Durso said his squad was ready to play. Before the faceoff, he told his team it was the championship was there for them.
“We talked about what a great opportunity we had in this game to leave a legacy at De Smet Jesuit,” Durso said. “We talked about the journey that is the long hockey season- where we started, all the struggles to get to that point. We talked about the details of the game and what we needed to do in order to be successful.
“There was definitely determination in our room prior to the game. I’m sure some of them had some nerves.”
SLUH took 1-0 lead in first period.
“We did not have any panic to our game,” Durso said. “I thought we had a big push in the first period. We weren’t giving up a lot of chances and we outshot them 10-6 after the first period. There were some momentum shifts, but generally I thought we had the better of the play during the first period.”
The Spartans’ Jack Estes scored to tie the game in the second period.
“We had just killed off a penalty and Jack was just out of the penalty box,” Durso said. “Michael Mullen fired a shot and it trickled behind the goalie. Estes was able to stuff it in the net.”
SLUH responded later and scored to lead 2-1 going into final period. Durso said his squad remained calm.
“The bench was positive the whole game; the guys were determined,” Durso said.
Jacob Kaush tied it for Spartans early in third period.
“Carson Wilhelm showed some great hand-eye coordination to knock down a puck out of mid-air as he skated into the corner and he had Kausch going to the front of the net,” Durso said. “He was able to get the puck to the front of the net and Kausch got a stick on it. It went off the post and in. Kausch was great for us down the stretch and in the playoffs.
“We were definitely pumped up at that point and it got our crowd into the game.”
In the remainder of regulation play, Durso said the Junior Billikens had a couple of good chances, especially late in the period.
“But (goalie Jakub) Dobes was up to the task,” Durso said.
Heading into overtime, Durso was confident.
“I liked our chances going into the overtime,” Durso said. “I thought we were still pretty fresh. They outshot us pretty handily in the third period, but I thought we were playing well. We talked about winning puck battles and giving everything they had every shift during the overtime.”
In the first 10-minute overtime, Durso said “there were good chances both ways.”
De Smet’s Michael Mullen shot a puck over the net on a good feed from Kausch during the first overtime period.
“That was probably our best chance,” Durso said.
In the second overtime, SLUH scored on a deflection when Martin Lyons scored 69 seconds into the period
“It was a classic hockey overtime goal,” Durso said. “You’re really trying to get pucks to the net and get some traffic in front of the goalie. They were able to do that and it deflected and got behind Dobes.”
Naturally, the Spartans were crushed.
“It was pretty devastating,” Durso said. “A pretty emotional time for our guys.”
After the game, Durso said he addressed the club.
“I just talked about how much I love this team. I’m so grateful to our group of seniors for their leadership and what they’ve taught our younger players in the program,” Durso said. “There were certainly ups and downs throughout the season. We focused a lot early in the season on skill development and as we moved along we spent more time on other things like the power play and the penalty kill.
“The determination that this group showed during the playoffs carried us to the second overtime in the championship game. You can’t get any closer to a championship than we did this year. We came up just short, but the lessons we learned about ourselves, our teammates. We’ll take those with us forever. I’m just grateful that I could be a small part of it.”
For Durso, the abrupt end to the game did not diminish what his Spartans accomplished this season.
“To get to the championship game in back-to-back seasons, I think is a great accomplishment especially in our league that has a lot of good hockey teams,” Durso said. “We had a difficult schedule during the regular season and we ended up with the third seed in the playoffs. The playoffs seem to drag on for a long time, but we were able to keep our focus, went over a lot of video and details in our game and were able to get back to the Enterprise Center.”
Durso enjoyed his time with this team.
“I can’t say enough about this group. We had some great leaders and great people among our group of seniors,” Durso said. “We will miss them. I know that the younger players have learned from them. You look at last year’s group and they handed down some things that this group was able to build on. I think we’re building something special at De Smet hockey and it really is because of the players that we have coming through the program.
“The big thing about high school hockey that is different from other places I’ve coached is the influence your older players have on the younger guys. They’re teaching them how to carry themselves as good people, they’re passing along traditions but making new one’s too.”
The Spartans have nine graduating seniors. But there will be talented players returning for next season.
“We had 20 players in the lineup,” Durso said. “All of our seniors dressed in the championship game. So, 11 from the championship game will likely return.
“The future is bright. We have a number of incoming freshmen that will be able to come in and contribute right away next year. Our JV team won a championship this season at that level. We have strong goaltending for the future. I like how we look going into next season.”