Every team’s worst nightmare is slipping up in the championship game after working all season to get there.
Notre Dame Prep’s hockey team knows that feeling.
Last February, the undefeated Saints fell to the Pinnacle Pioneers in the high school hockey state-championship game.
“It’s heartbreaking at the end. When you outshoot a team … you expect to win those games,” Saints coach Joe Dusbabek said. “It’s just the puck didn’t bounce our way that night. It was hard to walk into that locker room and look 12 seniors in the eye.”
The 1-0 loss was difficult to forget. Notre Dame finished the regular season with a near-perfect 19-0-1 record, well ahead of second place Pinnacle and its 12-7-1 season.
Through 17 games this season, the Saints once again are in first place of the Arizona High School Hockey Association’s Division 1 at 13-2-2, two games ahead of its nemesis, Pinnacle.
Unfortunately for the Saints, their regular season a year ago did nothing to help their chances in the final test, but it might have steeled them for another strong run this season.
“We came into it pretty confident,” senior center Grant Oneal said. “Come probably second period, it was going all good and then we just couldn’t put the puck in the net. That’s pretty much all there is to say, really. Their goalie stood on his head, ours did, too – let in one goal, which is exceptional given all the shots.”
Such is life in leagues with single-game elimination postseasons. Over the years, the format has concluded the seasons of many great teams because it evens the playing field.
Instead of needing to outperform a superior team over the course of a series, underdogs could catch a team by surprise or on an off night.
Although it hurt his team last year, Dusbabek would not want a change, nor does he foresee one.
“Any given night, anybody can upset anybody,” he said. “You never know. You run into a hot goalie or you’re fighting the puck. You don’t know what it is, so the ones that are most mentally prepared for whatever adversity you’re facing are the ones that are going to have the success.”
Not all of the blame fell on dumb luck, though. A few players from last year’s squad acknowledged that they lost focus and possibly came into the game with too much confidence. Some, such as senior right wing Michael Miscio, refused to sugarcoat the team’s mentality.
“When the last game came around, I guess we were a little cocky going into it, thinking we’d kill them,” Miscio said.
Senior center Parker Michelet said players and teams often let winning streaks get to their heads.
Most players would have chosen to blame a hot goaltender or a couple of bad bounces. However, Miscio and Michelet knew the process.
Setting aside excuses was the first step in redemption. Miscio’s mental build, along with a lauded work ethic, made him the clear choice to be this season’s captain.
Miscio stated that, aside from staying focused, this team will succeed because of the relationships, which he frequently calls a brotherhood.
“Last year, we were together, and we were all like best friends. We’d do everything together outside of hockey,” Miscio said. “This year, we wanted it the same way.”
The Saints often get together off the ice for bonding activities. Most of the time, they go out for breakfast as a team. Other times, they play football and basketball in their free time, according to Miscio.
This was everything coach Dusbabek could have asked for in a program. The next generation of players has learned how to accomplish great things as a team from previous classes.
That tradition and consistency has kept Notre Dame competitive despite being one of the league’s smaller schools in terms of enrollment.
The group of seniors has been keeping this in mind as they ascended into leadership roles. They wanted to leave their mark on the program and make sure it would be in good hands when they eventually depart.
Michelet already had a potential leader in mind.
“Definitely Marek Hertle. He’s a really hard skater. He puts in a lot of work. You’ll never catch him at workouts or anything slacking off,” Michelet said.
Michelet’s praise sounded eerily similar to what coaches and players valued in Miscio before he became the captain.
It spoke to the overall consistency of Notre Dame Prep hockey as one of the top teams in the Arizona High School Hockey Association.
“I think it was just a wake-up call last year,” senior center Dante Bagnasco said. “We lost, so people started taking it more serious, started being more committed, got a little more hungry for the ring.”
Notre Dame Prep knew it missed a special opportunity with their lone loss to Pinnacle, however, failure could be their greatest teacher in the long run.