March 10, 2013
Hyperbole is something I generally try to avoid. Calling anything the (fill in the blank)est (fill in the blank) EVER is particularly noxious because some people will say it...and say it again a couple of days later...and again a couple of days after that...and so on.
However, there are exceptions. Like the chain of events of the last four weeks that sent the CBA/J-D hockey team to the state Division II championship.
In all the time (15-plus years) that I've covered high school sports, there's been plenty of state titles won by local teams and individuals. But none as impossible, unlikely or amazing as this one.
First of all, this is a bunch of freshmen and sophomores, mostly. And they come from two different schools - one larger and public, one smaller and private. Oh yeah, and they're big rivals in a lot of sports. Sure it's going to work, right?
To make the odds even longer, the Brothers (they choose to wear purple and gold, not red and silver) start 1-6, so it looks over in mid-December. With powers like Oswego, Skaneateles, New Hartford and Auburn around, the thought was that, in Section III Division II play, the battle lay there. CBA/J-D? Really?
But then something started to click. Wins over Fulton, Whitesboro and Clinton brought the Brothers a tiny amount of momentum before the new year, but hardly anyone cared because these were the league's bottom-feeders.
The first "good win" comes Jan. 4, a 4-0 shutout of Auburn at Onondaga Nation Arena, which is CBA/J-D's home rink. It's the key to a seven-game win streak that also includes a conquest at Oswego before Skaneateles ends the streak Jan. 15, and a loss to New Hartford follows.
That's just a temporary blip, though. CBA/J-D ends the regular season with a 3-0-1 push, and most everyone takes a look and offers polite applause because, at 11-8-1, a fifth-place finish may have exceeded pre-season expectations.
So in the expected script, the Brothers last a round in the playoffs, maybe two, then exit stage left to let the powerhouses duke it out for sectional glory.
It bears repeating - if anyone, in mid-February, thought that this improving, but still young CBA/J-D hockey side would go win a state championship, they certainly didn't say it out loud. For if they did, the laughter and derision would carry to Saratoga.
Oh, but now the mystic side got involved. After a long battle with Alzheimer's, head coach Mike McKie's father, David, who founded the McKie Sports equipment company that outfits so many hockey teams in Central New York, passed away two days before the playoff opener at Auburn. And this came a day after Mike's fiance lost her father to Alzheimer's, of which you can read about here.
If this young CBA/J-D side had nothing to play for before, they sure did now, but even in their wildest imaginations they could not have conceived just how far emotion, combined with willpower, would take them.
It started at Auburn's Casey Rink, where the Maroons had not lost at home all season. No matter - with McKie's assistants handling most of the work while Mike dealt with his deep personal loss, CBA/J-D pulled it out, 3-2, and it made for a nice one-night story.
Where it started to become something mystical was in the sectional semifinals at Skaneateles. With the top seed, on home ice, and having swept CBA/J-D in the regular season, the Lakers had all the advantages, and even when it fell behind, 3-1, it rallied in the third period to force overtime. Surely the Brothers would fold here.
Only it didn't. Through one overtime,and then a second, the Brothers hung in there, and then Ryan Durkin, beginning a string of big-time post-season goals, won it in the third OT by a 4-3 margin.
By this point, everyone on the CBA/J-D side believed, and it didn't matter that the reigning champs from Oswego awaited in the finals at Utica Memorial Auditorium. Nor did a 1-0 second-period and 2-1 third-period deficit, for each time the Brothers came back, surviving a roller-coaster sequence in the final minutes (five goals from the two sides) and winning again 4-3 to end a 32-year sectional title drought.
Why stop there? Why not go to Buffalo, confront the state's top-ranked team in West Seneca West, and keep on going in the state playoffs? That was the Brothers' next move, and by the dramatic standards it had set so far, this 4-2 win was fairly routine.
Yet it all was prelude to the state final four climax back in Utica. If any doubter had any shred of doubt left about this team's manifest destiny, it was gone by the time the state semifinal against Beekmantown was over.
Late third period, and the Eagles are up 3-1, playing safely and counting down the minutes until it can punch its finals ticket. Then Braeden Doust scores with 4:21 left. Then, pulling goalie Tim Decker, CBA/J-D goes all-out and, somehow Durkin (him again!) shoves in the tying goal with just seconds to spare.
From being counted out (again), the Brothers were alive (again), and after Sam Mueller slammed home the game-winner in OT for a 4-3 win (again), all were now certain that the tale could have only one appropriate ending.
The state final against John Jay-Cross River fit the template of all that had gone before. The early lead, the mid-game struggle, the deficit at the end of the second period, and one more inspired comeback, with Doust scoring the tying and go-ahead goals and assisting on Drew Brooks' empty-net clincher in the final minute to seal the 4-2 verdict.
What followed - the discarded gloves, sticks and helmets, the hugs on the ice, the gold medals and victory hats, the team pictures with the state championship plaque - we've seen these things before. Heck, Division II has belonged to this section the last five years, with New Hartford (in 2009 and 2010) and Cazenovia (in 2011) getting state championships.
All of those title runs, though, were done by favored sides that had given an indication of their dominance long before they got to Utica. CBA/J-D had shown signs of getting better, but never did anyone, including myself, thought this could happen.
It was because Decker was stellar in net when he had to be. It was because Mueller, Jed Raby, Kane Alletzhauser and other defenders protected the back line, even when under heavy attack.
it was because Durkin came up with big, timely goals so many times, as did Doust and Lucas Relkin. It was because captain Scott Firman provided a master's course in leadership, aided by a coaching staff that hit every right button in terms of strategy and tactics.
Finally, it was because Mike McKie, possibly with an angel or two on his shoulder, willed a young assemblage of kids from two very different schools and molded them into a unit capable of dreaming an impossible dream - and making that dream come true.Those are things you never, ever forget.