Senior captain Jackson Leptich scored a wristshot goal into an empty-net with 21 seconds remaining in regulation on Monday night at The Edge Ice Arena in Bensenville, icing decades of frustration and sending Stevenson into the state championship game of the top-tiered Illinois High School Hockey (Red Division) state tournament.
The No. 3-seeded Patriots defeated No. 7 Glenbrook South 4-2, and now will skate for state on Saturday, March 24 at the United Center. Stevenson (55-17-2) faces the winner of Monday's second semifinal between No. 1-ranked Loyola Gold and No. 4 Glenbrook North.
"This was awesome," said Stevenson forward Trevor Hilt, who had 2 goals and 1 assist. "We're making history and just have to keep it going. Growing up, I've always wanted to play at the UC, and now I have the chance."
Hilt gave the Patriots a 1-0 edge less than five minutes into the game, chipping the puck past Glenbrook South goalie Jamie Dziurdzik off an assist from Seth Cohen.
The Patriots' early lead was short-lived, though. South tied the game at 4:51 of the first period, and Daniel McKay's power-play backdoor goal at 2:51 of the first gave the Titans a 2-1 edge.
Stevenson tied the game at 15:05 of the second period on a Carter Devlin powerplay tally, assisted by Adam Offenbach and Hilt.
Hilt scored the game-winner at 3:02 of the second period, assisted by Cohen and Offenbach.
"We had a lot of pressure, though we knew we were good enough to make it (to the United Center) … and it feels unreal," Leptich said. "Ever since losing to New Trier (Green) in the quarterfinals last year, we took it upon ourselves to train as a group all summer and it's paying off."
Leptich, a four-year varsity player, was Stevenson's leading scorer this season, netting 73 goals in 72 games, along with 47 assists.
"I wasn't sure (it was going in); I just sent it (toward the net) and hoped for the best," Leptich said of the unassisted empty-net goal. "I thought it was going wide for a second, but thank God it was on net."
Stevenson coach Tom Wood, who graduated from the school in 1998 and was a four-year varsity skater, was teary-eyed after the win.
"I'm just happy for the kids," said Wood, in his second season as the school's head coach after spending 14 years as an assistant coach. "The kids were hyped, but at the same time were really, really focused on playing relaxed during the game, and I thought we played with a lot of patience and executed our game plan."
Wood succeeded his dad, Jim, as the Patriots' head coach and is assisted on the bench by his brother, Dan, a 2008 Stevenson graduated who also was a defensive standout for the Patriots.
Stevenson goalie Elias Sandholm stopped 18 shots, while the Patriots forced Dziurdzik to save 25 shots."
Wood said watching Leptich's shot slide into the net was "pure joy."
However, the final moments before Leptich's empty-netter were tense for the Patriots, especially as they were forced to kill a 5-on-3 man-disadvantage in the final three minutes.
"We really stressed not giving up the odd-man breaks and not giving them too many power plays," Wood said.
Sandholm, in his first season at Stevenson, added, "I had a lot of fun all game; I love the tight games."
Hilt said his goals were "two of the biggest goals of my career (in one game)."