JOLIET – Earning a banner for finishing among the top four teams in a Northern Illinois Hockey League division is always a difficult task.
Doing so repeatedly, however, has proven to be a “Major” accomplishment for three members of the Jaguar Hockey Club’s current U14 (Bantam) Gold B team.
That is to say that Dylan Graziano of Minooka and Plainfield residents Owen Rossi and Tyler Zelinski have earned one of those much-coveted banners while playing together for the Jaguars each time they have been in the second year of play in a particular age division – known as the Major year – since they were Squirts back in the 2013-2014 season.
They have been joined in each of those seasons by Kenny Zschach, also of Plainfield, who was in his first, or Minor, year in the division each time.
“I think the four of us together on a team has resulted in a lot of success because we seem to know one another’s playing styles, and we seem to be able to work with that together,” said Rossi, 14, who attends Plainfield South High School.
“We have known each other for the longest time, we know how each other plays, and, after awhile, you can anticipate where they will be,” added Graziano, 14, an eighth-grader at Minooka Junior High School.
This quartet and their teammates will take to the ice at Inwood Ice Arena in Joliet at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, March 3, against the Orland Park Vikings to determine whether the NIHL Blackhawks Tournament banner they raise to the Inwood rafters this year will be a championship banner.
The title, basically the Stanley Cup for youth hockey players between the ages of 6 and 18 in Northern Illinois, is something that has evaded the foursome while playing together in the past.
“We have fallen just short too many times,” Graziano said.
In 2014, the last time the four played together in the NIHL championship game, they settled for a second-place finish in the Squirt (U10) Gold B division. They were joined in that accomplishment by current teammates Jack Campbell, Max Sterioti, and Riley Siwinski.
Two years ago, they finished third in the Peewee (U12) Silver division. Current teammates also part of that winning team were Brenden Miranda, Lukas Bomba, Wyatt Hubbard, Matthew McDonald, and Preston Simpson.
“Although we have fallen short a few times in past years together, this year I firmly believe that our team has the skill, determination, and work ethic to bring us the cup,” said Rossi. “Winning the title after we had lost the chance a few times would mean to me that we, as an age group, have come so far together, and we have continued to progress to the top of the standings each and every season.”
Zelinski, 15, also a Plainfield South student, adds that winning the championship would be “redemption for all the hard work for the past 10 years of playing hockey for the Jaguars.”
Zschach is quick to recognize the contributions of all of their teammates to the success he and the rest of the quartet have enjoyed.
“We have great chemistry together on the ice, and I don’t think it is just the four of us. I think it is all the ‘04s and ‘03s when we mix to make a great team,” said Zschach, using birth years to reference the age of the players, which is common in youth hockey.
Further testament to the chemistry among these players comes from the fact that Zelinski’s Major banner streak actually extends back two more years, to his Mite (U8) Major year in 2012, when he and Zschach were joined by Sterioti – also a Major-year player – in finishing fourth in the Mite (U8) Elite division.
Zschach, Campbell, and Hubbard have two other banners to their credit, earned at the end of the 2014-2015 season when they finished first in the Squirt (U10) Gold A division after also earning the President’s Cup banner for compiling the best record in that division during the regular season.
Sterioti added a first-place banner in the Bantam Gold A division in the 2016-2017 season when, while playing with the Romeoville Huskies, his team topped a President’s Cup-winning Jaguar team in the NIHL championship game.
Current Bantam Gold B team members Luke Ziesmer and Brady King add a third-place banner from 2013 to the team's collection of past successes. They earned their flag while playing separately from their current teammates in the Mite Silver B division that year.
“Some of the kids on our team, such as Dylan, Tyler, Owen, and Kenny, I had coached before, so I already knew them, not only as players, but also as kids off the ice,” explained Max Sterioti’s father, Rob, the head coach of this season’s Gold B U14 team. “The challenge for me, or for any coach in my situation, was that many of the kids on the team I did not know at all. I didn’t know their hockey background or their personalities off the ice.
“We spent much of our time early in the season trying to find a baseline of knowledge and then move the kids forward as a team. There were ups and downs.”
Those ups and downs are symbolized in the level of success they had in tournament play as the season progressed. After finishing second in the season’s opening tournament, they slipped to third and then ended up out of the medals in their next two tournaments. The team rebounded, however, going in early February to Nashville, Tenn., where they compiled a perfect 4-0-0 record, and came home with the tournament championship.
“About three-quarters of the way through the season,” Coach Sterioti continued, “we were playing for the President’s Cup flag, but then lost four straight. We then lost our state tournament play-in game. We just really hit a rut.
“But then we were able to regroup under a few really good practices, tried some new things that the boys have responded to, and, well, the rest is history. Here we are playing in the championship.”
He continued, “It’s always exciting playing in a championship, but there is something really special about playing in the NIHL championship.”
This is especially true for Jaguar teams because the Jaguar Hockey Club hosts the two championship weekends, which culminate the league playoffs, at Inwood Ice Arena each year. This year, the playoff series is known as the NIHL Blackhawks Tournament following a new sponsorship agreement announced at the start of the season by NIHL, the largest youth hockey league in Illinois, and the National Hockey League’s Chicago Blackhawks.
There will be 21 championship games played at Inwood over the course of the two championship weekends, including 11 games this weekend, beginning with a 6:30 p.m. puck drop on Friday night.
Jaguar teams always have a goal of “getting back to Inwood” for the championship game.
“It’s important because all of our family and friends get to witness the most important game of the year,” said Graziano.
“Our ice. Our fans. Our game,” is how Rossi succinctly put it.
He continued, “I’ve seen it on a few other teams where the kids have all been together for years, and it really builds great teamwork, chemistry, and the overall game of the team. With the four of us together, and all the new first-timers out here, I’m with my team on this when we say we are determined to take this one last W together.”
That would go along with the 25 other wins the team posted while compiling an overall record of 25-17-5 this season.
By “first-timers,” Rossi is referencing the members of the team who have not earned NIHL banners in previous years. These players include Deklin Young, Myles Slachetka, Dominic Kellogg, Carter Quinn, and Tristan Stooksbury.
“I’m really excited that the kids get to experience this,” said Coach Sterioti, who is joined on the bench by assistant coaches Bob Ambroffi, Patrick Young, and Sean Deering. “And for their families, too, that sacrifice a ton so that their kids can play this great game. Saturday is going to be a great day!”
“It means a lot,” concluded Zschach, “just because it is my last game with this great group this season and I won’t be able to play with a lot of them next year, since they will move up to Midgets and I will still be a Bantam. It would mean a lot to win, especially with this team.”
ABOUT THE NIHL BLACKHAWKS TOURNAMENT CHAMPIONSHIPS
The Northern Illinois Hockey League is the largest youth hockey league in the state of Illinois. The league, for the first time, has teamed up this year 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 U14 Gold B team at 2:30 p.m. Saturday will be just one of 21 NIHL championship contests to be played at Inwood during the two championship weekends. Eleven games will be played this weekend, March 2, 3 and 4, the second of the two weekends. Play begins at 6:30 p.m. Friday and 9 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
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.