Storm hockey team secures first-ever NSC title in grueling tourney
Intense win over Homestead the final touch
The atmosphere was loud and engaged, the Homestead Jazz Band had made an appearance earlier in the event and everything about the busy North Shore Conference hockey tournament spoke class and entertainment.
And that was before the entertaining 6-5 final game that the league champion WNS (Whitefish Bay, Nicolet and Shorewood) co-op pulled off against Homestead on Saturday night as an exclamation point on its first-ever league championship.
The victory gave the eighth-ranked Storm a clean sweep of North Shore games this season and an 18-3-1 overall mark. They had preceded that game with three other tourney shutouts earlier in the week over Germantown, Cedarburg and Grafton but coach Maco Balkovec was happy with the competitive and entertaining final.
"We were actually up 6-3 and they fought back," Balkovec said. "There was a great atmosphere. It was just the kind of game you wanted to play. We wanted to win conference for the first time (the Storm had already clinched the title going into the game) and this just clinched it for us.
"That final game was more for bragging rights than anything else as we've never beaten Homestead twice in a year before."
And then, Balkovec got a bit wistful, as he can't help but be reminded that he used to coach the Highlanders, leading them to their only state tourney appearance in 2007, and knowing the long run of success that has been carried on at Homestead's home ice of the Ozaukee County Ice Center.
"You look up at the rafters there (Saturday's game was played at Ozaukee County) and you see all the banners, look at the titles on the wall and think about all the great families and players that have come though," he said. "All the young men we've helped become adults. That's something you can look back on with pride.
"And then I think about us (WNS)," he added. "Things have changed. We have tried to foster that kind of community here. The guys aren't with each other all the time, so our time together does become precious. And it's important in fostering a brotherhood on this team. With the way we're set up (three different schools), everyone has to be on board, the players, their families and we've had tremendous support from all three schools and that's great, because it is demanding."
Which leads to great events like last week's tournament.
Keeping tradition alive
Homestead coach Tony Navarre, who has survived bouts with cancer to take over the powerful Highlanders brand this winter, maintains a strong competitive streak and wants to keep the former multi-time league champion Homestead squad at or near the top of the league.
And he, too, agreed Saturday was fun.
"Great game on Saturday," he said. "... Very competitive. I thought we were on the wrong side of some officials' calls, but we need to play through that. We made some mental mistakes that cost us some goals, but fought very hard to come back and stay in the game. We are playing better three-period games and hope to carry that into the (WIAA) playoffs. "
The Highlanders went 2-2 in the tourney with wins over Germantown and Grafton and a tough 6-1 defeat at the hands of Cedarburg. They are 8-12-1 overall. Ryan Mezera (two goals), Thomas Fazio and Sean Driscoll (two assists apiece) and Michael Schulz and Joey Hobbs (one goal and one assist each), led the way in the conference finale.
The new ice kings
But Saturday was about a coronation for the veteran WNS squad. You had goalie Sean Leahy posting three shutouts earlier in the week before enduring the intense attack from Homestead.
"He's playing some of his best hockey now," Balkovec said. "He was just a little tired on Saturday."
Leahy got help late in the game on Saturday as Balkovec decided to go with five seniors on the ice in the final minutes, as the Highlanders pulled their goalie in favor of an extra attacker in hopes of notching the tying goal.
Balkovec also praised captain Thomas Aiken who had one goal and four assists ("He plays more minutes than just about anybody in the state," Balkovec said), Andy Krugler (three goals and an assist), Djordje Torbica (two goals and two assists) and Andy Keith (three assists).
Balkovec loves how Krugler is a coach's dream as he seems to have little detail down pat.
"Big things, little things, his attention to detail makes him one of the most important people we have out there," Balkovec said.
Important details such as the fact that WNS had five power play goals in the game and Homestead had two.
Playoffs up next
Both teams close out their regular seasons this week and then begin WIAA tourney play.
Despite their lofty ranking and fine record, the Storm could only secure a fourth seed in the WIAA Kettle Moraine sectional. They host Janesville in a regional final at 8:15 p.m. Feb. 14 with the winner likely to face top-seeded Kettle Moraine co-op on Feb. 19 in a sectional semifinal.
Homestead, meanwhile, claimed the seventh seed in the Hartland sectional and hosts 10th-seeded Waupun in a regional semifinal at 7 p.m. Feb. 12. The winner plays at second-seeded University School in a regional final Feb. 14.
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