Country Day breaks the drought, wins D3 championship
PLYMOUTH — When there are no pucks on the ice for practice, players know it’s going to be a rough day.
Such was the fate of the Detroit Country Day hockey team in its first practice following a 3-0 loss to Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett on Dec. 16.
Yellowjackets coach Frank Novock didn’t see the effort he expected against Liggett, so he was going to extract it from his team on the practice ice.
“We weren’t very good,” he said. “I put 51 minutes on the clock and said, ‘You guys owe me another game, because we didn’t play one Saturday.’ That was the last game we lost all season. The guys didn’t complain; they took their medicine. It was three 17-minute periods they owed me. They just went through it like they did these last 22, so I consider that a win, also.”
Message delivered, message received.
Country Day won its final 22 games after the loss to Liggett, the final one being a 2-1 decision over Livonia Churchill in the MHSAA Division 3 championship game March 10 at USA Hockey Arena.
It was the first state championship for Country Day since 1981, the longest drought between state titles in MHSAA hockey history. Liggett went 22 years between its 1990 and 2012 titles.
The process of getting Country Day relevant on the state scene once again began when Novock took over as head coach in 2010-11. The Yellowjackets were 15-11-1 that season, winning their first regional championship since 1989. They won two more regional titles before this season, but never got past the quarterfinals.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” said Novock, who had been an assistant coach at Bowling Green State and Wayne State. “Coaching college for six years before I left there, the reason I left was I wanted to be home with my family more. It kind of worked out. I ended up here. The first couple years were different. I’m pretty straight and narrow, kind of very honest, almost to a fault.
“Some kids probably never heard ‘no’ in their life. So it was a culture change coming here. The leadership just kept evolving. Now we’re gonna work out in the summer, now we’re going to go here. Just little things like that is a culture change. … When you’ve got kids like this, it’s the greatest job in the world and a ton of fun.”
Country Day made it to the top of the heap by allowing only five goals in six playoff games. A huge part of that was the goaltending of star junior Sam Evola, who stopped 30 of 31 shots against Churchill.
Evola stopped 25 of 26 shots the previous day in a 2-1 victory over top-ranked Hancock. He finished with a goals against average just below 1.00.
“Just do what I do best,” Evola said. “It doesn’t feel like (thriving under pressure), but when I look back at it, I guess you could say that.”
Evola was amazing, make no mistake about it. But he’s the first to give credit to a group of forwards and defensemen who will sacrifice the body to block shots in front of him.
With no regard for his body, and having experienced the dangers of getting in front of flying pucks, forward Carter Elrod blocked two shots in the final seconds to help preserve the victory.
“Earlier in the season, I broke my hand blocking a shot,” Elrod said. “It’s a thing coach stresses every day that we have to do to win games. Every time we go out there, we don’t think; we just go out there and block the shot.”
The championship game nearly went two full periods without a goal, as Churchill’s Chris Sergison stopped the first 14 shots he faced to do his part in keeping the game scoreless.
Country Day got the break it needed in the second when Mickey VanAntwerp took a pass from Jacob Thomas, split the defense at the blue line and went in on a breakaway. He scored, then crashed into the net, with 38.1 seconds left.
“I think Mick was 0-for-8 on breakaways, and the guys let him know about it all season,” Novock said. “I guess you save your best for last and when it matters the most. And even him skating. Mick’s not the fastest guy in the world, but I think that’s the fastest I’ve seen him skate all year.”
Tim Stebbins deflected a shot by defenseman Jacob Thomas past Sergison with 10:53 left in the game on the power play to give Country Day a 2-0 lead.
Churchill cut the lead in half when Seth Kucharczyk scored with 7:53 left in the game, but couldn’t get the equalizer.
It was the first finals appearance for the Chargers, who lost in the quarterfinals after each of their previous six regional championships.
“The overall experience has really been incredible,” Churchill coach Jason Reynolds said. “The atmosphere has certainly been electric. This is something we’ve been looking forward to. We had an opportunity to kind of embrace it and get our bearings about us (Friday) when we played the game. We were successful there. It was important for us not just to get here, but to get to Saturday.”
Churchill (16-12-3) was 11-11-3 during the regular season, but plays in the tough Kensington Valley Activities Association. The KLAA had teams in all three championship games, with Brighton winning the Division 1 title and Hartland the Division 2 championship.
“I cannot deny how strong our KLAA schedule is year in and year out,” Reynolds said. “A lot of guys are focused on our .500 record, but that .500 record has also been against state-ranked teams over the course of the year.
“Even if we weren’t coming out guns blazing in November and December, the strength of our schedule has allowed us to build and develop and get better. So hopefully, when we’re healthy by playoff time, we’re able to go on a run.”