John Campanelli did not have a good tryout last August.
Sure, he was a senior with a year of varsity experience, but St. Viator entered this season with a new hockey head coach. Chris Lappin replaced Evan Poulakidas, who took the head coaching job at Metro North rival Glenbrook North.
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"I was doing things to impress (Lappin) because he was a new coach, but I just should have stuck to what I knew was best and stuck to my game," Campanelli admits. "I was nervous (about making the varsity)."
Lappin went with his gut instinct and tagged Campanelli for the varsity.
I could not be happier with John's play this season," Lappin said. "But a month into the season, I never would have envisioned what he's brought to the team.
"He works, works and works. He's tough as nails and definitely one of those players who skates under the radar."
After all, of his 20 goals this season, most have been rebound tallies. Instead, it's the intangibles that carry Campanelli, such as, his intensity, his work-ethic, and his vocal leadership as St. Viator goes for a state championship at 6:30 p.m. today at the United Center against St. Rita.
And certainly shot-blocking, too.
"He'll sacrifice his body to block a shot," Lappin said. That means diving at a shot head-first, feet-first, or, "anyway I can," Campanelli said.
Even if the puck hurt -- which it does, he admits. Such as the shot he blocked last Saturday in the final minutes of the state tournament semifinal win over perennial power Loyola Gold.
"It stung and I had to get off the ice right away," Campanelli said. "I still have a bruise on my knee from it, but it was well worth it. After the game, I didn't even remember that it hurt, and now it's fine.
"Blocking shots is something unseen by many, though everyone on the team is appreciative for what I do. Blocking shots are the little things that coach said win championships, and if you're not the (main) goal-scorer, you have to find other ways to help the team … this is just one way that I am successful helping the team.
"If it's a bruise that helps us, well, it'll eventually go away."
Campanelli, 17, who lives in Mt. Prospect, shoots right-handed and plays left wing alongside center Patrick Gregory and right wing Robert Renner. Campy, as he is known by his teammates, has 20 goals, 23 assists and 120 penalty minutes -- third-most on the team, though not surprising given his gritty game.
"I never thought that I'd be in the position to play for the state championship at the United Center," said Campanelli, who will head to Bloomington, Ind., in the fall, where he plans to play for the Indiana University hockey club. "At the beginning of the year, the seniors and veterans came together and said that this could be our year. Now, it's almost surreal. We're really trying to soak in this whole week."
St. Rita advanced to the championship game with a 3-2 semifinal win over defending state champion New Trier Green. The Mustangs and Lions have met four times this season. St. Rita won the first two, while St. Viator has celebrated after the last two games, including the finals of the annual Loyola Thanksgiving Tournament in Wilmette.
"Rita is a very good team, but we know that if we play our game, stick to our gameplan and listen to coach, we will be successful," said Campanelli, who noted that his personal season highlight, so far, came in a Catholic League clash against Mt. Carmel, played in Hoffman Estates.
On the first shift of the game, no less. A Caravan player was dumping the puck into the Viator defensive zone when Campanelli tagged him.
"I hit him and he actually landed on our bench," Campanelli said. "That kept me smiling for a while."
After all, Campanelli admits, "I don't score many highlight-reel goals."
Instead, Jeremy Linzing is Viator's flashy forward. He scored a team-high 18 goals, 16 assists in 21 Catholic League regular-season games, plus 15 goals, 12 assists in 19 Metro North regular-season games. Renner had 17 goals, 8 assists in 19 Catholic League games, plus 20, 16 in 21 regular-season Metro North games.
St. Rita, the five-time defending Kennedy Cup champion of the Catholic League, is led by forward Keith Burchett, who scored 23 goals and 35 assists in 22 Catholic League regular-season games. The Mustangs also feature Rick Faron (21 goals, 24 assists), Chris Foley (20, 18, 22) and Jack Warren (11, 9, 22).
"Before I got to know our new coach, I was unsure, but after seeing his system and seeing how he coaches, and the chemistry that we have (as a team), midway through the season I really started to believe that we had a great shot at this," Campanelli said.
St. Viator is anchored in goal by all-state pick Robert Schmidt, and fellow all-state defenseman Michael Decker. Linzing, Decker and Ryan Santorsola were named to the Illinois team for the upcoming, prestigious America's Showcase tournament, held next month in Pittsburgh.
"Campy might not be the most skilled player or the strongest player on the team, but he has one of the biggest hearts you could find anywhere. That's what separates him from the competition," Schmidt said. "He does all the little things right, those small things that don't really show up on the scoresheet. Without him, we would not be where we are today."
This is St. Viator's third appearance in the state championship game, with runner-up awards from both. Glenbrook South defeated St. Viator in 1989 for the state championship, while Mt. Carmel topped the Lions in 1979.
"When we started skating (under coach Lappin), it was a little different from what we were used to, and some of us were a bit hesitant. But after a month or so, everyone started to realize that he knew what he was talking about," Campanelli said. "I just love coming to the rink and playing hockey; that's fun for me and much better than staying home and doing homework, that's for sure."
Especially with a varsity state championship on the line the next time he walks into an ice rink.
• For the third consecutive year the championship game will be broadcast live in high-definition on Comcast SportsNet Chicago at 6:30 p.m. with Judd Sirott and Steve Konroyd on the call.
• The action at the UC includes the girls state championship game between New Trier and Lake Forest at 4 p.m., and the boys combined division state championship with Bartlett facing Glenbard at 8:45 p.m.
• General admission tickets for the event, which include parking, are available for $5 online at chicagoblackhawks.com, in person at the United Center Box Office or by calling Ticketmaster at (800) 745-3000. For more information, contact the Blackhawks ticket office at (312) 455-7000.