A year ago, St. Viator forward Patrick Gregory was a fan in the stands at the United Center, watching New Trier play Glenbrook North for a state championship in high school hockey, in the top division of the Blackhawk Cup -- and wondering what it might be like to be on the ice.
This season, Gregory will have a chance to experience it for himself.
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The senior scored one of 3 first-period goals for the Lions as St. Viator built a 3-goal cushion over Loyola Gold, then held off a wild Ramblers' second-period comeback to win 4-2 in the state semifinal matchup at The Edge in Bensenville.
The Lions move on to play St. Rita, a 3-2 winner over defending champion New Trier Green, in the Red Varsity title match at the UC at 6:30 p.m. Friday.
"It's going to be exciting, playing on the big surface in front of all those fans," said Gregory. "I feel like this is our year -- now we've just got to finish."
Viator has twice played in the championship game -- most recently in 1989 -- but finished as runner-up both times.
"It'll be crazy (at the UC)," said St. Viator all-state goaltender Robert Schmidt, "but we have to try not to focus on that. We've got to treat it like just another game."
The fans had barely settled in to their seats when the Lions opened the scoring with a fluke goal just 12 seconds into the game.
St. Viator junior defenseman Michael Decker corralled the opening faceoff and dumped it in to the Loyola zone, where it hit the end boards, went off an errant Ramblers skate and wound up in the back of the net behind a stunned Loyola goalie.
"I didn't even see what happened," said Decker, who was a surprised as everyone else that the puck went in to give the Lions the quick advantage. "But it got us rolling and gave us the momentum."
Jackson Owens scored next on an odd-man break off a pretty feed by Jeremy Linzing, then Gregory tallied on a tip-in with 41 seconds left in the first to give Viator a 3-0 lead.
Loyola Gold was able to rally in the second, as Thomas Kennedy and James Warrick scored goals within a minute of each other midway through to make the score 3-2.
"They were in desperation mode at that point," said Decker. "They came up big."
The Ramblers had several more chances in the second but Schmidt made big save after big save. Then Viator forward Michael Haubner gave the momentum back to the Lions by rifling a rebound into the net with 4:43 remaining in the second.
Schmidt and the Lions defense, led by Decker and Jeremy Odonnell, made the 2-goal lead stand up and the celebration began in earnest when Schmidt made two clutch stops in the final minute after Loyola had pulled its goalie.
"I'm so proud to be a part of this team," said Decker. "They're a strong group from top to bottom."
"We gave the momentum back to them (Loyola) tonight by letting them score those 2 goals," added Schmidt, "but like our coaches have been telling us all year, we're in it for the long haul and we've got to learn to battle through adversity.
"My teammates and I talked before the game and we all said that we don't want to go out with a loss. We want our last game to be a win."
Friday night, the Lions will get that chance.
"They're a good, tough team," said Gregory of St. Rita. "But we'll be ready."