WASILLA — Coming up short of the ultimate glory in any sport can send the losing team in one of two directions: into despair and out of contention or motivated to ensure it doesn’t happen again if they manage to make it back the following year.
The West Anchorage boys hockey team proved it was the latter with a 3-2 victory over Dimond in the Division I state championship game in their second consecutive finals appearance on Saturday night at the Curtis D. Menard Memorial Sports Center in Wasilla.
“It’s great to see these kids accomplish the goals that we set forth at the beginning of the year and what we’ve built towards the last two years,” West coach Rob Larkey said. “To finally achieve it makes us feel really good.”
He doesn’t know if he could’ve mentally handled another letdown in the final and was grateful they were able to turn their fortunes around.
“I feel sorry for Dimond High,” Larkey said. “What a great tournament and what a great year they turned around and had but it’s great for us to feel this way on this side of it.”
West senior Henry Sholton shredded a ton of ice and even shed a little blood on his way to earning player of the game honors. He was rightfully showered with “M-V-P” chants from a rowdy student section after he scored the Eagles’ first two goals and had the assist that led to their third.
“I feel great and am just glad we got the win,” said Sholton who suffered a laceration on his hand that required a trip to the emergency room and stitches. “We had to get our revenge somehow and this was the best way to do it.”
Sholton has been on varsity since he was a freshman but didn’t start having a large role and consistent playing time until his junior year and as a senior. He’s one of seven “premier” players on the team that are set to graduate according to Larkey.
“All his experience from this year, the taste and the hunger that he had after not making it last year really proved what he was this time,” he said.
Sholton nearly pulled off a hat trick late in the second period when his shot on goal bounced off a pipe but thankfully, sophomore Joey Dittrich was able to slap the ricocheted puck into the back of the net for what ended up being the game-winning goal.
“It was pretty crazy,” Dittrich said. “I just saw me and one of my linemates on the two-on-one, he made a nice shot, I crashed hard rebound and got the goal.”
He enjoyed being on the same line shift as his older brother Paul and Sholton all season and is glad to send the seniors out on top.
“Those guys put in the work every single day, they deserve it, they’ve been here the past couple of years when we’ve come up a little bit short, and it’s good to finally have them bring home a state title,” Dittrich said.
Sholton couldn’t care less about missing out on completing the hat trick as long as his team came out on top and he got to end his career on a high note.
The Eagles were in firm control of the third period with a two-goal lead but the game got a tight and a little nerve-wracking in the final minute when the Lynx cut the deficit in half when they pulled their goalie and scored with 26.1 seconds left to potentially force overtime.
“I was a little bit nervous, but I knew our team had it so we just kept going and doing what we’ve done the entire game and entire season,” Dittrich said.
Despite coming up short last year to a dominant Chugiak team that went undefeated the entire season, West was confident that they had the right pieces coming back and a renewed mindset to finish the job this time around.
“We went up against a really good team, played our hardest, but just didn’t have what it took,” Dittrich said. “I knew we had enough guys coming back this year that we could come back in the same position and come out on top.”
As elated as Larkey was to finally be able hoist the state championship trophy again, he was just as proud that the team also received the academic achievement award for the highest combined grade point average.
“To have that and to win this is incredible,” Larkey said. “There are not too many teams that have ever done that, win the academic award and keep winning trophies. To me, that’s a big thing for us.”
Even though they are losing several key seniors, the Eagles have faith in their young core to uphold what has become the program’s standard. Competing for championships each year.
“Next year we’ll have to evaluate where we’re at through practices and stuff to see what kind of system we’re going to run and what kind of roles guys are going to have to play to get us there,” Larkey said.
Alaska Boys Division I Hockey Tournament
Menard Center in Wasilla
No. 1 West 6, No. 8 West Valley 1
No. 4 South 5, No. 5 Chugiak 1
No. 6 Dimond 3, No. 3 Colony 2
No. 2 Wasilla 8, No. 7 Service 0
West 2, South 1
Dimond 5, Wasilla 3
Colony 2, Service 1
Chugiak 5, West Valley 2
4th/6th place game
Colony 5, Chugiak 4
3rd/5th place game
Wasilla 2, South 0
West 3, Dimond 2