The Jaguar Hockey Club’s Peewee 3 team knows about finishing second.
They have done it twice this season in tournaments.
On Saturday, Feb. 29, when they face off against top-seeded St. Jude from Crestwood in the NIHL-Blackhawks Tournament 12U Bronze Championship game, they intend to draw on the lessons learned from falling short in Detroit and St. Louis to leave second best behind.
“We have played in three tournaments this year and gone to the championship game in two of them,” said Coach Sean Deering, who recalled losing both of those games -- one to a team from Toronto, Canada, he admits “is just a little bit better than we are” and the other “to a team that we should not lose to.
“Both experiences gave us something to learn from and opportunities to improve.”
That improvement was obvious as the season unfolded for this team of ‘07s and ‘08s (so called, because they were born in 2007 and 2008), which includes Robbie Levasseur, Caleb Bus, Blake Middleton, Ben Nagel, goalie Mikey Uldrych, Dominic Carrico, AJ Trojanowski, goalie Sully Eleveld, Lucas Kirner, Dominic Messineo, Brennan Deering, Nick Spreeman, Payton Kabel, Myles Spaeth, and Jack Nelson
“Most of these boys have never played together before, let alone even know each other,” said team manager Denise Spreeman. “Watching them together, you would never know this. These boys played like a team from the start and they have only gotten stronger as the season went on.”
“I have never had a group of kids come together and play as a team as quickly as this one has,” said Deering. “While we have had individual player have tremendous games, we do not have a team built on riding the coattails of one or two great players.
“They all work together to execute our system and it has shown in our performance.”
Perhaps no more so than last weekend, as this group of Peewees -- the traditional name for 11- and 12-year-old hockey players -- worked their way through the playoffs after a first-round bye and earned their spot in the championship on their home rink at Inwood Ice Arena in Joliet. They defeated the Peoria Rivermen, 6-2, in the quarterfinals before taking on the Chicago Blues from Bensenville in the semis.
“The highlight of the season was the semi-final game against the Blues,” explained Myles Spaeth, of Yorkville, a sixth grader at Parkview Christian Academy. “It was a challenging game, but the entire team played their hearts out. Our goalie, Mikey (Uldrych), played like a beast!”
So, it would seem, did Myles.
“We knew Sunday’s game vs. the #2 seed Blues was going to be tough,” recalled Spreeman, who noted the teams had split their season series.
She explained that the game was scoreless until the final minute of the second period, when the Blues grabbed the 1-0 lead with :29 to play. The Jaguars answered when Myles scored with 9:24 left in the game.
“Our goalie, Mikey Uldrych, was a beast in net,” Spreeman said in agreement with Myles’ evaluation of the netminder’s performance, “battling as the Blues crashed the net over and over.”
It was Myles who eventually broke the tie, however, coming out of the penalty box, grabbing the puck and scoring his -- and the Jaguars’ -- second goal of the game with 1:51 left.
“The Blues pulled their goalie, we got yet another penalty, and it was a 6 on 4 with the Jaguars working hard to get that puck out of the zone,” Spreeman recounted. “I think it was the longest minute of our lives. When that buzzer went off the boys went crazy and there were many tears in the stands.”
“That feeling when the buzzer went off was so awesome!” agreed Spreeman’s son, Nick, a 6th grader at Brooks Middle School in Bolingbrook, where the family lives.
“All my hard work this season paid off!,” Nick enthused. “We reached our goal of going to the big show!”
Nick noted that neither he, any of his teammates, nor his coaches, have ever played in the NIHL championship before. “It’s going to be the best day of my life!” he predicted.
He also noted that it will be a very good day for his mother, Denise, who has been a volunteer working the NIHL championship weekends, which the Jaguars host at Inwood, for years.
“My mom has helped with NIHL for 15 years and I am her first kid that will be giving her a rose,” he said regarding the pregame ceremony in which players give their mothers flowers and pose for photographs with them. “That makes me really happy.”
Dominic Carrico, a Minooka Intermediate School student from Shorewood, echoed Nick’s happiness, including his specific assessment of how good the day is going to be.
“I’m proud we made it,” said Dominic. “it’s the first time I’m going to the championship and I’m really excited. It’s going to be the best day of my life!”
“Making it to the NIHL Championship game is an amazing reward personally for ongoing hard work and determination,” added Myles, who has had to overcome more than his teammates to earn that reward.
“During my Squirt (U10) season, I broke two bones, and then had to undergo heart surgery for an undiagnosed heart defect. These setbacks made me have to work even harder to develop my game and keep up with the fast pace of travel hockey.”
Coach Deering may not have gone as far as some of his players in assessing the importance of the game as a life milestone, but he does have high expectations for the game and for his team, which goes into the championship with an overall record of 25-16-1.
“I expect this to be a hard-fought game,” Deering said with regards to the match-up with the Knights, who have defeated the Jaguars each of their four previous meetings. “St. Jude is a difficult team to play against, with their combination of speed and physicality. Having said that, I am counting on our boys to put together three solid periods of effort and to come out victorious.
“We feel this is a game that we can win and we would be disappointed in anything else.”
But win or lose, he definitely will not be disappointed in his players, their effort, nor their resolve, which has stood out to him and the rest of his coaching staff throughout the season.
“Coach Mitch (Ryan), Coach Maury (Deering), and I have been so impressed by their ability to always stay positive in games,” Deering said. “There have been multiple times this year where we were down going into the third period of games. We would make a few lineup changes and the kids would respond by coming back, tying games, and, ultimately, getting a win.”
“I want to say thank you to all of the parents who put their faith in our assistant coaches and me” Deering concluded. “We are proud to coach these boys and hope we can get the club another first-place banner to hang in the rafters.”
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 Bronze team at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 29, will be just one of 22 NIHL championship contests played at Inwood. A dozen games will be played this weekend, the second of the two championship weekends.
Play begins at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 28; 9 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 29; and 8:30 a.m. Sunday, March 1. The games are open to the public. An admission fee is charged.
Brackets and scheduled game times can be found on the NIHL website at www.nihl.info.