T-Birds’ 16U team holds national title hopes
Coming into the season, the Colorado Thunderbirds’ 16U National team set four goals for itself.
First was to repeat as the Tier I Elite League champions, then win Colorado Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA) state and Rocky Mountain District regional titles, culminating with a USA Hockey national championship.
Three down, one to go.
After winning the Tier I Elite League and state championships in February and early March, the Thunderbirds ran the table at this year’s Rocky Mountain District Regional Tournament, skating to a flawless 5-0 record, including a 1-0 triumph over Dallas Stars Elite in the championship game.
Next stop: Amherst, N.Y., where the Thunderbirds will compete in the USA Hockey National Championships, which will run from March 26-30.
Last season, the Thunderbirds’ 16U squad fell in the championship game of its division to Team Wisconsin, 2-1 in four overtimes.
Six players – forwards Ashton Fry, Max Gerlach and Brian Hawkinson and defensemen Cal Foote, Keegan Mantaro and Charlie Kiefer – return from that runner-up group a year ago.
“Our players are hungry, especially having being so close last season,” said Thunderbirds 16U head coach and director of hockey operations Angelo Ricci, whose club enters nationals with a 61-4 overall record (only one of its losses have come in regulation; the others in shootouts). “But we know it won’t be easy.”
Hawkinson netted the lone goal in Colorado’s championship-game victory at regionals, which were showcased this month in Dallas, and goaltender Dayton Rasmussen turned aside all 16 shots he faced.
Gerlach, a University of North Dakota recruit, struck for a team-high 10 points (six goals) in the five games at the event. Rasmussen picked up three of the wins in net, and Austin Park the other two.
“The key to any kind of postseason run is the work your club puts in prior to the playoffs; I don’t think you can just flick a switch,” said Ricci of his team’s good fortunes. “The preparation from on the ice, to off the ice, to video, to team-building, to competition during the season, to players buying into what the coaching staff is teaching are all critical for success.
“In my opinion, there’s a whole process to having a successful team and program. The attention to the details of the game, accountability, dealing with adversity, role acceptance, leadership and team chemistry all play a factor.”
On the ice, strong play in their own zone has been the Thunderbirds’ calling card this season. Heading into nationals, the club has allowed just 67 goals in 65 games.
“We play a solid team game with contributions from all four lines, and we have a strong defensive core,” said Ricci, who guided the Thunderbirds to Colorado’s first-ever Tier I national title in 2010 – also at the 16U AAA level. “That and I believe we have the best 1-2 goaltending tandem in the country.
“When you play a strong game in your own end, protect your house and have solid goaltending, it normally leads to great offense. Plus, I really like our transition game.”
Tight-knit chemistry, according to Ricci, has also defined the group.
“I think that trumps everything else,” said the coach. “Yes, we have some very good players, but individual skill won’t win you a championship, but individual skill working within the framework of a team certainly gives you a very good chance of being successful.”
And as talented of a group they are – the team already boasts four NCAA Division I-bound players in Gerlach, Hawkinson (University of Miami-Ohio), Ben Lown (Miami-Ohio) and Trystan Isenhour (Colorado College) with six others with offers on the table, according to Ricci – the club has embraced a selfless will to improve for the betterment of the team – an attribute that should serve it well in Amherst.
“This group has really grown since September in terms of accepting what each player brings to the table and how he can best help us have success,” said Ricci. “Each player has bought into playing the right way, which means a full, 200-foot game with a very high compete level.
“You’re going to make mistakes, but when we make them, I tell our players, ‘Let’s make them out of hard work and effort; not laziness and selfishness.’
“As a head coach, it’s been a pleasure to see the growth of each player, but more importantly our growth as a team.
“And one area I feel is undervalued at this age is leadership. Our captains (Foote and Mantaro) have been tremendous all season long.”
And regardless of past successes on the national stage, Ricci is well aware his group needs to be ready to compete from the drop of the puck in Amherst.
“We know it’ll be a challenge and, if we’re not prepared or take things for granted, we won’t have much success,” said the coach.
Rocky Mountain High
Other Colorado programs delivered strong showings at regionals, including the Rocky Mountain RoughRiders, who sent three teams to the event after an exceptionally strong performance at the CAHA State Tournament.
The RoughRiders’ 18U AAA team, which celebrated the state championship in its division, forged an impressive 3-1 mark in Dallas, while their 16U team finished 2-2. Rocky Mountain’s 14U group went 1-2.
The Thunderbirds’ state champion 14U club went 4-1 in its bracket, falling to Dallas Elite in the finale, 2-1 in overtime. Colorado’s 18U team also finished with a 4-1 mark, and was also bested by Dallas in the title game, 2-1.
The Colorado Rampage’s 18U team finished regionals with a 1-2 mark, while the Utah-based West Coast Renegades program went 0-3 at the 18U, 16U and 14U levels.
– Brian McDonough