18AAAs Make Breath-Taking Run To Final At Nationals

18AAAs Make Breath-Taking Run To Final At Nationals

By Chris Bayee

California Rubber Magazine

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the LA Jr. Kings Midget 18U’s run the Tier 1 championship game at the USA Hockey Nationals in Williamsville, N.Y., was that eight months earlier, no one was sure if the team would exist.

"We had eight players signed for our first practice – they didn’t know if they would have a team to play on,” coach Jack Bowkus said. “Those eight put their trust in me to find more players."

Find them he did. And over the course of a season filled with valleys and peaks, the largely unheralded group of 20 accomplished what no Jr. Kings 18U team (or 17U team as they were classified before 2003) ever had.

“This was just an unbelievable team; I’ve never experienced anything like it,” the veteran coach said. “We have sayings on the wall in our locker room, and this team epitomizes them.

“You never knew who was going to get it done, which is what made this group so fun to coach.”

Never was that more true than at Nationals, when every skater at least a point but none had more than four (Kurtis Klinger) in the Jr. Kings’ six games.

They were backstopped by goaltender David Jacobson, whose save percentage of .946 and goals-against average of 1.50 was best among 18U goalies at the tournament who played more than three games.

“I’ve never seen a more dominant player at a Nationals than David Jacobson,” said Jr. Kings 16AAA coach Louis Pacella, whose club reached the semifinals.

Jacobson stood tall ’til the end, stopping 31 shots in the 2-1 loss to Shattuck-St. Mary’s in the final.

The improbable run got off to a slow start with a 5-1 loss to the Cape Cod Whalers, who lost to Shattuck in the semis. Next was a 3-2 loss to the DC Capitals that was decided in a 13-round shootout after the Jr. Kings rallied from a 2-0 deficit on goals by Bryan Hodges and Devin Linker.

“That taste of we could do this helped this team come together,” Bowkus said. “Even then, it didn’t seem like we were out of it.”

If the Jr. Kings beat the Buffalo Jr. Sabres in regulation in the round-robin finale, they would advance.

“They were all over us at the start,” Bowkus said. “But we got that first goal (by Austin Ho late in the second period).

“We had to focus on our positioning and we executed it to a T.”

The quarterfinals brought powerhouse Detroit Little Caesars, a club Bowkus knew well – he played for it growing up.

“It was an emotional game for me,” Bowkus said. “We came out on fire.”

Down 1-0 just 3:55 in, the Jr. Kings scored the next five goals, including four on the power play. Joe Cicoria, Jake Vitta, Joseph Kaszupski, Klinger and Matty O’Donnell lit the lamp.

“Assistant coach Ralph Barahona runs our power play, and he did a great job getting everyone on the same page,” Bowkus said. “We use our lines on the power play, so that was a credit to him.”

Little Caesars scored twice late in the second period to make it 5-3, but the Jr. Kings buckled down.

“Caesars was just pounding them, but the boys stood their ground,” Bowkus said. “It was a fantastic display of how they came together.”

The Jr. Kings met fellow Tier 1 League foe Pittsburgh Hornets. “Nobody in North America thought that Pittsburgh or the Jr. Kings would reach the semifinals,” Bowkus said. “Both teams came so far.”

Dean Rhymer scored seven minutes in and Jacobson did the rest, stopping all 30 Hornets shots. Adriano Mungioli’s empty-netter iced the 2-0 outcome.

The final saw Shattuck take a 2-0 lead 11 minutes in, but Harout Sarkisian countered for the Jr. Kings with 2 minutes to play in the first. That was all the scoring.

“We were one shot away,” Bowkus said. “I’m really disappointed for the kids. I truly believe they had a great chance to win it all.”

For more on ice and inline hockey in California, visit rubberhockey.com