At the start of a new season, most teams set a goal of playing for a championship at the end of that year.
Very few teams actually achieve that goal.
Jaguars Peewee 1 is one of the rare ones.
The goal of this particular group of 12U players -- Peewee is the traditional term for youth hockey players in that age bracket -- will be met when they step on the ice at Inwood Ice Arena in Joliet at 2:30 p.m. Saturday to face the St. Jude Knights for the 12U Elite NIHL-Blackhawks Tournament Championship.
“My first meeting with the players, the boys collectively came to a decision they wanted to get their mothers a rose at the championship game,” Coach Joe Krupa recalled. “With all of their commitment and determination, they accomplished their season goal.”
Which was not an easy feat, especially playing in the league’s top level, Elite, with a small group of players with little experience at such a high level.
“Making it to the championship with these 14 players was especially hard due to a shorter bench, but the boys adapted well to conditioning and skills that were set forth by the club and coaches,” Coach Krupa explained.
“They have provided each and every one of us with many tips, or ‘tools in the toolbox’ as Coach Krupa always says, making us better and smarter hockey players,” Evan Mattison, a Minooka Intermediate School student from Shorewood, said of the coaching staff, including Krupa and assistant coaches Owen Price and Kyle Thomas.
Those on-ice smarts are what apparently paid off for the Jaguars throughout the season.
The Jaguars U12 team enters the championship with an overall 35-10-7 record, including an 11-2-5 regular season mark in the Northern Illinois Hockey League. That mark was good enough for second place and a first-round playoff bye. They then swept the Falcons in the two-game semifinal series to earn their way to the big game against the Knights, who enter as the sixth seed.
“We have had a great year building friendships and chemistry,” noted Evan, who has been a Jaguar for eight years. “As the year has gone by, there have been many moments that we will all cherish in our hearts.”
Among those moments are some of the tournament successes this team had throughout the season. They took home a first place banner from Niagara Falls, a first place from West Dundee Ill., and a runner-up finish in Sarnia, Canada.
Although it is some of the moments within those tournaments that stand out in particular to the players, especially Jack Igric, who also lives in Shorewood and attends Minooka Junior High.
“The highlight of the season this far for me has been the crazy comeback we had to win the championship in Buffalo,” said Jack, who has worn a Jaguar jersey for six seasons.
Evan and teammate Logan Krupa, a Drauden Point student from Plainfield, recalled specific goals they scored during the season as their personal highlights.
“It's been a special year because we have had many high points and a few low points, but these boys never quit on each other or myself,” said Coach Krupa.
“To me advancing to the NIHL-Blackhawks Tournament Championship game means that we collectively, as a team, have worked as hard as we could and have done everything we could to win this Fall season,” Evan said.
Evan’s head coach seemed to agree.
“Throughout this season, one of the reasons we were so successful is they worked hard, but still had fun,” Krupa said. “This group of boys made it easy to be their coach. I couldn't be more proud of their accomplishments and where we are heading.”
“I have been dreaming of this moment ever since I started playing travel hockey,” Evan said. “Making it to this championship game will be a memory I never forget and will mean a lot to me personally due to my love and passion for the sport.”
And it will mean a lot collectively to the coaches and the players on this team, including Mattison, Igric, Krupa, Dominic Gregori, Nicholas Brascia, Joshua Kundert, Brody Luzbetak, John Mendoza, Aiden Flood, Mitchell Fulayter, Bryce Reardanz, Wilson Terrutty, Colin Lassiter, and Quinn O’Connell.
“Advancing to the NIHL Tournament Championship means to me, as a player, that everything my team and I have worked for has finally paid off,” Jack said.
“This team has been one of my favorites,” said Logan, who has been playing for eight years, “and I can’t wait to see what will happen.”
ABOUT THE NIHL-BLACKHAWKS TOURNAMENT CHAMPIONSHIPS
The Northern Illinois Hockey League is the largest youth hockey league in the state of Illinois. The league has teamed up with the Chicago Blackhawks of the National Hockey League to present the annual season-ending tournament weekends, which are presented each year at Inwood Ice Arena in Joliet, in partnership with the Jaguar Hockey Club.
The NIHL-Blackhawks Tournament Championship game involving the Jaguars U12 Elite team at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 22, will be just one of 22 NIHL championship contests to be played at Inwood during the two championship weekends. It will be immediately followed at 4:30 p.m. with the Jaguars U18 Elite team vying for a title at the U18 Elite level vs. the Bloomington Thunder.
Play begins at 9 a.m. each day, this Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 22 and 23, and continues next weekend.
The games are open to the public. An admission fee is charged.
All games will also be live-streamed on the Internet by Jaguar Television. You can link to the broadcasts from the Jaguar TV link on www.jaguarhockeyclub.com.
Brackets and scheduled game times can be found on the NIHL website at www.nihl.info.