Hockey: Geneva Cyclones enjoy storybook season
Not many people would argue that sports, at their core, are all about competition and achievement. And that they are about carrying dreams birthed in youth to fruition in adulthood.
You see this in professional sports all the time. Football players who win a Super Bowl talk about how important it was for them to get a ring.
Baseball players who win it all talk about their 8-year-old self dreaming of striking out the last batter in the bottom of the ninth to win Game 7 of the World Series.
NBA players have the same dream -- just change the bottom-of-the-ninth-strikeout storyline with the sinking-a-25-foot-fade-away-jumper-as the-clock-expires scenario.
The childhood dream is the same. Only the sport is different.
In hockey, NHL players who reach the pinnacle almost universally say they've dreamed of lifting Lord Stanley's Cup since they first laced up a pair of skates.
But, strange as it may sound, sports actually put a little too much emphasis on winning. Maybe, just maybe, it's not all about winning. What if coming close and falling just short actually means more in the long run than winning?
If you think that sounds preposterous, consider the Geneva Cyclones.
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Gabriel D'Amico ("Damics"). Jake Carlson ("Cap"). Mateusz Sak ("Polish Prince"). Zach Lupori ("Luper"). Zach Pearce ("Pearcy"). Jacob Holmstrom ("Homer"). Ryan Allamian (Ryno"). Ian Diehl ("Dealer"). John Hamilton ("Hammy"). Jacob Navarro ("Navi"). Tommy Purton ("Purts"). Miles Haberek ("Habs"). Sam Lio ("Sammy"). Bradley Kinney ("Kinney"). Reid Peterson ("Rieder"). Nick Greco (Grecs"). Nick Ortegel ("Orts"). William Bulthaup ("Chomp"). Ben Mikutis ("Ben"). Brandon Bolf ("Bolfer").
Hockey has a penchant for call signs.
These 20 young men from make up the Cyclones' Midget 18U AA boys team. They finished a storybook season by finishing third in the nation at the USA Hockey National Tournament in San Jose, California last month.
Six of the players live in St. Charles. Three more are from Geneva. There also are players who live in Big Rock, Yorkville, Sugar Grove, Palatine, Lemont, Glen Ellyn, Aurora and Romeoville.
Every one of these young men is an exceptional hockey player. And every one of them would express deep remorse that they came up short. Their season ended on the Solar4America ice at San Jose Center Rink.
But the team? The team lives on, and that's the key. These 20 young men will forever recall -- fondly one day, if not now -- how they fought together, strived together, cried together and won together. Had they won the championship, they may have focused much more -- almost exclusively -- on the prize. The award. The accomplishment. The deep, strong bonds they formed in the crucible of competition, those may have taken the bronze.
"You don't find a group like this too often," explained coach Mike Breslin. "Although we had our share of bumps along the road, we always seemed to come out on top and make it through the questionable times. [These boys] are incredibly close and were in tears after losing at the nationals, but those tears weren't just because they lost. They were also because they knew that, for many of them, this was the last time they were going to play together."
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It all started back in late September, when the Cyclones, who play in the Central States Development Hockey League (CSDHL), opened their season by traveling to the rarefied air of Littleton, Colorado. Struggling with the altitude, Geneva dropped two out of three games. An inauspicious beginning.
But then the boys went on a tear of sorts, winning seven straight before falling to the Chicago Bruins three days before Halloween to slip back to 8-3. The Cyclones began to show their mettle when they immediately commenced another eight-game unbeaten streak, and by Christmas Geneva was 16-4-1.
It was during this stretch that one game in particular stood out to Breslin. "On the first day of December we played a very talented and classy Northstar Christian Academy (in Alexandria, Minnesota) prep team," Breslin recounted. "We lost 4-3 but gained so much more. After the game their captain asked our team to pray with them at center ice, so we did. And we continued to pray in the locker room after every game for the rest of the season, with Jake Carlson, our captain, leading us."
"They were by far the best team we played all year," added Carlson, "and I thought we played one of our best games of the year. We didn't get the win, but I think at that point everyone realized how good our team actually was. We knew how special of a group we were."
In January the lads went 7-1, including a 5-0 sweep at the North American Prospects Hockey League (NAPHL) 18U Showcase tournament in Detroit. The Cyclones dropped their final game of the regular season, a 4-3 loss to the Leafs of West Dundee, to finish the campaign with a 23-6-1 record, good for second in the CSDHL.
But it is the nature of team sports to generate leaders, and those accomplishments deserve recognition, too. Forward (and captain) Jake Carlson led the team in goals (26), assists (21), and points (47). Zachary Pearce finished just two goals behind Carlson, Zach Lupori was two off Carlson's pace in helpers, and Pearce was also runner-up in points, with 40. Nick Greco and Reid Peterson more or less split the goaltending duties; Greco (10-4-1) posted a .894 save percentage, while Peterson (11-1-0) stopped more than 91 percent of the shots he faced and posted five shutouts.
There's a lot to be said for peaking at the right time, and that's exactly what Geneva did. In the CSDHL playoffs, Carlson and Lupori each scored five goals to lead Geneva to the title with a 3-1 record, and it was on to the NAPHL playoffs.
The Cyclones ran the table, going 5-0 and qualified for the USA Hockey National tournament in Silicon Valley. But before they headed west, they blitzed the AHAI (Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois) with another four-games-to-none performance that earned them the Illinois State championship. Carlson was again the man and again put up 5 goals. Bradley Kinney, Mateusz Sak and Gabriel D'Amico each had 3 assists, and D'Amico netted the winning goal in the championship game.
In San Jose, Carlson again led all goal scorers with 4 tallies, but Pearce put up 7 assists and his 10 points was team best. Greco took command in the net, playing 4 of the 5 games, stopping all but 10 of the 125 shots he faced (.920) and posting a 3.53 goals against average.
Ranked No. 5 in the nation, Geneva lost the championship to top-ranked Team Ohio, but not without a fight. In a thrilling finale, the teams traded goals in the second and third periods, with Carlson tying it 2-2 with a shorthanded breakaway gem with 6:45 left in regulation.
Geneva killed off a number of penalties in the game, including a 5-on-3 in overtime. In that 17-minute extra period Team Ohio actually got the puck past Greco twice, but the first was waved off on a goalie interference call and the second was negated because the puck had already been blown dead.
After the overtime and five rounds of shootout, Team Ohio finally managed to put the game winner past Greco, who had stopped 47 of the 49 shots he had faced to that point (actually 52 of 54 if the shootout shots were included, which they're not), an eye-popping save percentage of .959.
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"I've never been part of a team where the guys were so close," explained Greco. "They were like a second family for me, and I love every one of those guys. That's why we were successful, and I think that's what I'll remember the most. We were all pretty emotional (after the Team Ohio loss), but it wasn't really because we lost. It was because we knew the season was over and we realized we'd never have a group of guys like this again. It was the best team, with the best friendships, I've ever been a part of."
Carlson, who's been with Cyclones' organization for eight years, echoed Greco's comments. "I've always kind of been a leader in the program and I was fortunate enough to wear the [captain's] C this year. Definitely the most fun I've had on a team. We had great chemistry where everyone in the locker room was happy with each other. We were all on the same page and knew what our goal was.
"First step was winning the state championship, and there's no better feeling than doing that. Going to California for nationals was very exciting, and placing third was pretty remarkable. It's the furthest the club has ever gone. For me to captain a team of that caliber has been a blessing. I'm very thankful to Coach Bres[lin] for giving me that opportunity."
Trophies tarnish with time. Medals get dusty and lost in a drawer before ending up in a garage sale one day. And rings lose their luster with age.
But relationships, and memories, those stand the test of time.