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D1 HOCKEY: Despite Jesko’s heroics in goal, Detroit Catholic Central beats Heritage, 3-1, to claim 14th state title

By: Matthew B. Mowery, March 9, 2019, 10:10 pm

PLYMOUTH — With every save Saginaw Heritage’s Jack Jesko made, it could’ve been easy for the Novi Detroit Catholic Central offense to get frustrated.

Jesko stood on his head in Saturday’s Division 1 championship game at USA Hockey Arena, stopping 44 of the 46 shots he faced, the fifth-most saves ever by a goalie in a finals game.

Even stone walls get cracks, though, and the Shamrocks found just enough of them to build a two-goal lead, then hang on through a flurry by the Hawks at the end, adding an empty-netter in the final minute to win, 3-1.

“Obviously it wasn’t easy. The last three games have all come down to the wire, in terms of running into some hot goaltenders, running into some posts. That’s what makes winning so tough this time of year, because you never know what you’re going to run into,” CC coach Brandon Kaleniecki said. “But I was real proud of our leaders, our captains, our seniors — they all stepped up and made big plays, and that’s fortunately why we’re sitting here right now.”

The Shamrocks (29-1-1) finished the season unbeaten against Michigan teams, capturing the program’s 14th state title, tying CC with Trenton for second-most in state history, behind Cranbrook’s record 17.

For Heritage (28-3), it was a second straight runner-up finish.

“Our boys kept battling there to the end. That Catholic Central team, congratulations to them. You could tell all year long they were on a mission,” Heritage coach J.J. Bamburger said. “We’re trying to make strides in getting our team known throughout the state, and not just in our area. This is our fifth final four appearance and our second state championship performance, coming up short both times — for a school like us, and from our area — is nothing to be ashamed of.”

The Hawks stayed in the game because of Jesko’s play throughout the game, as the Shamrocks peppered him with shots. After giving up a first-period goal to tournament MVP Rylen Clemons, Jesko didn’t give up another until the 6:19 mark of the third period.

In between, he was sensational.

“He stepped up and gave us a chance to win. A couple of those saves he made, diving across to make a glove save was a highlight-reel save. He’s been dialed in all year long. There was a couple games at the end where he’d like some goals back, but the best thing about him is the amnesia that he had. He never let it get him down,” Bamburger said. “He just competed on every single puck, and I think you could see his athleticism on a lot of different shots today. He just kept on going. Even when they scored that goal, there was no frustration, he was just up ready to stop the next shot.”

Midway through the second period, Jesko stopped a flurry of three shots, the third while lying on his side across the goal-mouth, reaching out to snatch the puck with his glove.

“I was just trying to throw the glove out, give myself a chance,” the senior said. “I just happened to hit it, got focused, and acted like it was a normal save. Don’t get too high, don’t get too low.”

The Shamrocks, who had to beat Salem 1-0 in the quarters, Rochester Adams 4-2 in the semis, then face Jesko on Saturday, could’ve gotten frustrated, if they didn’t have a defense just as staunch on their end.

“I just told our kids, I’ve been involved in hockey for 17 years, and I don’t know that I’ve seen a team that’s deep like they are. Those six defensemen that they have are tremendous,” Bamburger said. “As a corps, you’re not going to find in high school hockey, a better six defensemen together. They work well together offensively, cover each other well defensively.”

Kaleniecki agreed.

“Oh, it’s huge. Someone asked about the pucks not going in, and we had a lot of tight games throughout the course of the season. But when you’re able to play six defensemen all that capable to do the job it does take a lot of weight off our (offense’s) shoulders, knowing that, hey, they’re going to shut the door at the other end. It gives our forwards a lot of confidence. It is a team effort, too. Our forwards do a great job of helping the ‘D’ out, and the ‘D’ help the forwards out on the offensive side. It was a full-team effort, but the six D? You don’t have that every year, I know that,” the coach said, noting that the defensive transition, getting the puck back to the forwards quickly, was key. “Then you get those situations where other teams really start hanging on for long periods, wearing them down until you’re able to pop one home.”

Clemons popped one home first.

With a delayed penalty, the senior forward picked the puck up at center ice, and walked it in down the left side, unleashing a rising slap shot just inside the left face-off circle that beat Jesko high.

“All season, really. We had a chat the other day, because he was starting to grip his stick. He was getting a little frustrated that some of the pucks weren’t going in. Even (Friday) he had a couple that didn’t go in, and you could see that he was a little bit frustrated by it. I talked to him I think before the Birmingham Unified game … and told him, ‘Hey, if I want one guy to have the puck on his stick with the game on the line, late in the game, it’s going to be you right now,’” Kaleniecki said. “And for him to come up with that goal — we were talking before the game that we just had a feeling he was going to break through — and he did. He had a phenomenal goal, and that really set us up for being on the front foot the remainder of the game, because it didn’t feel like we started all that great. We were a little bit sluggish, turning a lot of pucks over, which isn’t something we’re very pleased with, and he just goes and makes a game-breaking play, and it just — we started to roll at that point.”

The Shamrocks made it a two-goal lead at the 6:19 mark of the third when Luke Collins unleashed a wrist shot from the right point, and it was redirected past Jesko by Ryan Marra for the goal.

Heritage got on the board with an extra attacker in the final two minutes, as Edison Symons scored on assists from Jacob Best and Ethan Houck with 1:56 to play, but the Shamrocks returned it to a two-goal lead a minute later when Marra scored an empty-netter off a pass from Zach Borchardt.

Catholic Central ran off the remaining 55 seconds to close out the win, then celebrate with the raucous student section in the corner of the rink.

“There’s no words. No words. When you have all your closest buddies up there, just going … bananas, it’s amazing. It’s awesome,” Carter Korpi said.

Fellow captain Brendan Hill agreed.

“When I was young, eight years old, I would come to these games and watch, and see how loud the student section is. I had a dream to come play at CC, and it just … happened,” the senior said. “There’s no words for it.”

Winning the title wasn’t easy, though, and it’s getting increasingly difficult as the level of play in the high school ranks steadily continues to improve.

“Obviously there’s a lot of great programs out there, and that’s what makes winning so difficult. You never know. You look at the last three games, all close, tight games that require everything they have to get through it. … There is a lot of talent in the state of Michigan, there is a lot of talent in high school hockey, and if you watch games like this, all the games today, the environment, I think, speaks for itself, and why more and more kids are going to want to play high school hockey,” Kaleniecki said. “Guys from this team are going on to play in juniors, so I think that option is there, and think people are starting to realize that. I hope more do, because you get to experience something like this. As a coach, I love it. I’m just so excited to be a part of it.”