West Dundee Leafs overcome rough start, finish second at youth hockey championship

Most every coach in every sport will tell you they want their team to be playing its best at the end of the season.

The West Dundee Leafs youth hockey team did just that this season.

After what coach Jeremy Szczurek agreed was a rocky start to the season, the Leafs put it together when it mattered most.

The Leafs, a team of 18- and 19-year olds from throughout the north and northwest suburbs, put together a 4-2-0 record and finished second at the USA Hockey Youth Tier II National Championship in Maple Grove, Minnesota, in early April.

"It was a roller coaster in every sense of the word," said the 27-year old Szczurek, who graduated from Huntley High School and played collegiately at Iowa State.

"We started hot and hit road bumps throughout. There was a large shift in the mentality on how we had to go about the rest of the season - either buy in or fall apart, essentially. Little things had to be acknowledged that we were not doing the best of our ability and our leadership group took charge."

Part of that leadership group was goalie Dylan Posch, a Mount Prospect native and 2022 Hersey graduate who currently attends Harper College in Palatine.

"My thoughts of the team and how far I thought we could go changed throughout the season's highs and lows," Posch said. "At our lowest I'd feel we would lose in state and after some big wins I'd believe we could really make some noise if we made it to nationals. But even at the highest points of the season, never did I think we would go far enough to play in the national championship."

But the Leafs did just that, before falling 2-1 to the Rochester (N.Y.) Grizzlies in the title game. The West Dundee-based team includes players from Hampshire, Elgin, Algonquin, Lake Zurich, Palatine, Cary, St. Charles, Batavia and Huntley, as well as Plainfield and Rockford.

"Just playing at nationals was amazing," Posch said. "I made sure to take five minutes in the stands and look around the rink before every game just to take it all in. But our whole run was just so special. When Jake (Laube) scored the empty netter in the semifinals (a 5-2 win over the Philadelphia Blazers) I just dropped to my knees because I couldn't believe what we were accomplishing"

Posch, who will be playing a year or two of junior hockey, including next year with the Oregon Tradesmen, had to spend some time letting the Leafs' accomplishments set in.

"I don't think it ever really truly set in until the car ride home after the championship when I was looking back through some of the highlights of the weekend and I just thought to myself, 'Wow, I just played in the national championship,'" he said. "The memories I have from that tournament with my team is something that I will cherish forever."

Laube a team captain who is a senior at Hampshire, was pleasantly surprised at the Leafs' run to the national championship game.

"At the beginning of the season I did not think that our team was going to accomplish what we did," he said. "I thought this because we were pulling kids from all over hoping we would have enough kids to put a team together that could maybe make playoffs."

Szczurek, who grew up playing for the Leafs, says the experience from this year's run to the national finals should bode well for future Leafs teams.

"It starts from the top," said Szczurek, who has been coaching for four years. "When you see your top guys doing little things, no one has an excuse and I think that is what changed. We knew our old way was not working and as a whole we needed to be better. We had some tough locker room conversations but I think because of it, we were prepared for the adversity nationals had for us.

"We will have some guys coming back to play large roles for us next year. They know the expectation now and truly saw firsthand how little details have to be taken care of first."

West Dundee Leafs goalie Dylan Posch, a Hersey High School graduate, helped the team to a second-place finish at the USA Hockey Youth Tier II National Championships in Maple Grove, Minn., in early April. COURTESY OF JIMMY DOLES
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