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Hancock starts fast, holds of Grand Rapids C.C. for first title since ’99

By: Bill Khan, March 12, 2016, 5:41 pm

PLYMOUTH — When a team comes downstate from the Upper Peninsula to play for a championship, it represents more than just its own school.

The entire U.P., even bitter rivals, jump on the bandwagon.

Well, almost the entire U.P.

"There might be a couple kids or parents who do not, but I think we got about 95 percent who are backing us," Hancock hockey coach Dan Rouleau said.

"Usually when a team from the U.P. comes down, you have the whole Upper Peninsula backing mentality up there. It’s really cool. We’re a little isolated up there, but we’ve got some good hockey players up there, I’ll tell you that."

The nine-hour ride back from Plymouth was much more enjoyable for the Bulldogs than it’s been for past U.P. hockey finalists, as they skated off with a 4-2 victory over Grand Rapids Catholic Central in the Division 3 championship game on Saturday at USA Hockey Arena.

The Bulldogs (24-6) became the first U.P. team to win a hockey title since Marquette (Division 1) and Calumet (Division 3) won championships in 2008. Three U.P. schools combined to go 0-5 in the finals since then.

"It’s nice to bring back a state championship for all these fans," said freshman left win Alex Nordstrom, who had two goals and one assist. "They drove down today at 3 in the morning to come watch us. It’s nice to bring back a state championship for them."

A Go Fund Me page to help pay for Hancock’s trip to Plymouth raised $6,620 from 99 donors in two days.

"It’s awesome to see the support of the whole community," senior defenseman Jack Fenton said. "Not just the school, but you see people from all over the country supporting us, alumni coming together and supporting us in our run to achieve this goal, the one goal everyone has to get this state championship."

It was Hancock’s first championship since the 1999 team beat Big Rapids, 7-3, in the Class B final. The Bulldogs lost to Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook-Kingwood in the Division 3 final the following season, and hadn’t returned to the championship game until Saturday.

Despite being a freshman, Nordstrom had no more or no less experience on this stage as his older teammates, many of whom weren’t born when Hancock last skated in a state championship game.

Nordstrom performed with the poise of a veteran, scoring five goals and two assists in the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals. He had the overtime winner in the semifinals against Cranbrook-Kingswood.

"I kind of just focused and told my brain it’s another game," Nordstrom said. "Just go out there and do what I do; just play."

In 30 games, he finished with 34 goals and 27 assists to finish second in team scoring to sophomore linemate Teddy Rendell.

"He was a key part of this puzzle," Rouleau said of Nordstrom. "The kid was our second-leading scorer this year. He had great chemistry with a sophomore on his line. The kids were our top two scorers this year. It bodes well for the future of this team."

The team’s goaltender, Dawson Kero, is only a sophomore. Kero made 20 saves.

It looked like Hancock would coast to the championship, as the Bulldogs jumped out to a 3-0 lead and had a 17-8 advantage in shots on goal after one period.

Fenton scored at 7:17 of the first period to open the scoring, then Nordstrom made it 2-0 at 10:05.

A potential backbreaker came with 18.2 seconds left in the period when Danny Hill buried a two-on-one pass from Nordstrom for a shorthanded goal to make it 3-0.

"Obviously, in any hockey game you want to get out to the quick start," Rouleau said. "That was our game plan for here today. To get a three-goal lead was huge, because it turned out to be the difference."

But the Cougars fought back to within 3-2 on second-period goals by Ethan Tellier and Chase Madden. Despite being outshot 30-16 through two periods, the Cougars were back in the game.

"Obviously, a disappointing start for us," Catholic Central coach Mike Slobodnik said. "We got overwhelmed. A lot of credit goes to them. They just really came out and pressed. We didn’t have the start we wanted, being down 3-0. We came in between the first and second period and talked about how we’ve got to be better than that. We didn’t change anything. We didn’t feel it was a system thing. We had to work harder. We had to be better in certain areas of the ice. In the second period, we did that. We lost to a great hockey team, too, that’s for sure."

The Bulldogs could breathe a little easier after Nordstrom took a pass from Rendell and scored into an empty net with 57.4 seconds remaining. Even then, some of the Hancock players weren’t taking anything for granted.

"Me and Jack (Fenton) and Danny (Hill) try to pound into the younger kids’ heads that we have to keep going hard, not ever giving up," Hancock senior captain Dylan Paavola said. "That’s when comebacks happen. We don’t want any of that, because we haven’t won a state championship. We didn’t want to screw this one up, I guess you could say. I could say I felt comfortable with 3.6 seconds left."

Catholic Central finished with a 26-4-1 record. Junior Jacob McClelland made 37 saves for the Cougars.

"He was great," Slobodnik said. "Jacob’s a great goaltender. He’s a great kid. He has over a four-point GPA. He’s one of those guys on our team who understands the core values of what it means to be a Catholic Central hockey player."