--PART 2 (On Their Way)
The ‘post’ version of the 1999-2000 season started with the first game at Cap Ice, rink #2, the smaller rink, versus Green Bay. Green Bay had played together all season, yet Team Wisconsin had to quickly assemble following WIAA state. Matt Carey recalls Team Wisconsin won by one or two goals. “The score was close, but we controlled puck possession and zone time.”
TW was naturally rusty, with maybe one practice prior to WAHA State and not having played together since early November. But the team got better each game as the weekend went on, just like they had done in the fall, which was a credit to the players, the coaches, and the systems.
Carey gained some satisfaction after game two, as TW soundly defeated the Pettit National Selects team. “It was a totally lopsided game,” noted Carey.
Then came the championship game: Team Wisconsin vs. Madison Capitols. It was no contest, as TW whipped the better-known Caps by a score of 7-2. “We were a faster, more-skilled team, and by a large margin,” remembered Carey.
The game saw two former WIAA teammates playing against each other: Andy Rozanski, who left University School (USM) to play for the Caps, and USM star Evan Salmela. Rozanski went on to play for Lawrence University, but Salmela--who was the first recipient of the Wisconsin Hockey Coaches Association “Player of the Year” and would play four years at Cornell--got the better of the battle this day. Team Wisconsin dominated at its first Tier 1 state tournament, outscoring the three teams by a combined 23-4 margin.
A week later, TW re-grouped at Cap Ice again, this time for the regional play-downs to determine who would advance to Nationals, which was held in Pittsburgh.
TW lost to Chicago Chill, then beat the St. Louis Jr. Blues on Saturday and had a rematch vs. Chicago Chill on Sunday for the right to move on to ‘Natties.’ But the Chill--coached by Larry Pedrie—narrowly beat Team Wisconsin, and Chill went on to finish second in the Nationals to winner, Eastern Mass Senators. In the TW game vs. Chill, Carey said, “Adam Burish stepped up and flashed his elite play, but it wasn’t enough.”
“We lost to the studs at the time (Chicago Chill),” recalled Evan Salmela. “But I can tell you, in the locker room we fully expected to beat the Chill the first year, as well as the second. There was a confidence from top to bottom on TW both years I was there.”
Unfortunately, the 2000 ‘post’ season ended with that loss, but Carey and TW was already looking forward to the 2000-01 season.
A few weeks later, Carey contacted the Chicago Chill manager to establish a line of communications for scheduling future games. Carey was surprised to hear the Chill manager say, “Your team put a real scare into us at regionals. It was the best competition we faced other than Eastern Mass in the championship game.”
The Chill manager went on to say that “your team (TW) was better than any team we played at Nationals other than Eastern Mass.”
Carey took that information as inspiration and now realized that Team Wisconsin was only a ‘couple pieces’ away from being something special.
After tryouts had determined players for the upcoming season, Carey and the coaching staff had to keep a few extra players on the fall roster in order to allow the players to play their fall sports. “We never had the same team each weekend, and sometimes not even game-to-game on the same weekend,” noted Carey. “It was an inconvenience but a necessary trade-off in order to accommodate the kids that played a fall sport for their respective high schools.”
A few examples of players that did double-duty: Nick Sirota, Jason Lettau, Joe Searl, Landon Holsen (football); and David Susens (soccer).
“To be candid, it was truly impressive,” said Carey. “It was a testament to some of the exceptional athletes we had that kids played hockey at a high Tier I level after playing varsity football or soccer (the same weekend).”
But Carey had to keep track of games played in the fall because players needed to have played at least 10 games to be eligible for the ‘post’ part of the season. The nine-weekend season saw three games played on most weekends. And when March came around, TW had to cut the roster to 20 players. “It was one of the most difficult things we as a staff had to do,” recalled Carey. “It was inevitable that some really good players were not going to be on the (post) roster.”
In order to take some of the administrative duties off Carey’s shoulders, Mike Connor stepped up and collected required documents such as birth certificates, consent-to-treat forms, and other paperwork. Connor kept all the needed information in a binder for tournament check-ins. “When I saw some of the other teams and how disorganized their paperwork was, it made me realize what a nice job Mike did in collecting and retaining our paperwork.”
Team Wisconsin finished above .500 again in the 2000 ‘pre’ portion, and after the WIAA teams ended their seasons, the players met once again to battle their state competition and once again, to try to make it through to regionals.
“My memory is that we cruised through state,” said Carey. “I was driving to Madison, and I had all the jerseys hanging from a rod in the back seat of my Toyota Camry. About halfway to Madison, the rod broke and the jerseys ended up all over the back seat and floor.”
The next step was the Central District Tier I Regionals, held at Seven Bridges Ice Arena in Woodridge, IL.
Team Wisconsin and the Chicago Chill skated to a 3-3 tie in the first game. Coach Skille told goalie Bob Berg, “Good game.” Berg replied, “I can do better.”
Then TW took care of the Jr. Blues by a score of 4-2 in the second game and then needed to beat the Chicago Chill on Sunday.
There had been some bad blood between the two teams in the fall session. Carey had called new Chill coach Jim Marchi to schedule some games in the fall. The two agreed in principle to play, but as time grew short, Marchi abruptly said they couldn’t play any games. “My intuition was that the AAA teams had ‘blacklisted’ us and wanted nothing to do with a team of high school players,” recalled Carey.
Fast forward to March 2001 in suburban Chicago, and the night before the title game showdown, the TW coaches and the Chill coaches happened to be in the same restaurant. Carey went over to talk with the Chill coach. It was an awkward interaction because the Chill coach agreed to play TW in fall and then backed out late after Carey had blocked two weekends for games. When Carey mentioned his hypothesis that the Chill were pressured to not play a team of ‘high school’ players, the Chill coach went silent and avoided Carey’s gaze. Matt wished the Chill coaches good luck and left to rejoin the TW staff.
“I returned to my table and Coach (Lee) Skille made some comments with expletives about the Chill coaches,” said Carey.
Team Wisconsin took it out on the Chill the next day, winning a thrilling 4-1 game to secure Team Wisconsin’s first berth to a national tournament. Evan Salmela had a shortie, and “Bob Berg (Antigo) made some great saves to secure the victory,” said Carey.
“That was a strong senior group with Nick Toneys as our captain,” recalled John Egge of Wisconsin Rapids. “Those guys brought a ton of confidence. Obviously winning the tough (Central) regional helped…I really think we believed we could play with anyone in the nation after that.”
Bud Sheldon had driven down from Milwaukee and was so excited that he caught up with Carey with a couple minutes left in the game and offered a check to help cover some expenses at Nationals. Carey pushed the check away, saying “The game isn’t over yet. Just hang on.”
Moments later the horn sounded on a TW victory and Carey graciously accepted the check from Sheldon. “We had a pizza party at the hotel in Philadelphia compliments of Bud!”
When TW arrived in Philadelphia, they found out that they drawn defending national champion Eastern Mass Senators for their opening game opponent. “I remember thinking we had a bad draw by having to play (them) in our first game at nationals,” noted Carey. “But it ended up being a blessing.”
“We are in the area between the locker room and the benches before the game stretching,” remembered Salmela. “(We can hear Eastern Mass) laughing at us, I guess because Wisconsin has never had a team at Nationals that they know of. I never felt so confident in my life.”
Team Wisconsin not only beat Eastern Mass, they made a statement with a dominant performance in a 9-3 win. The Senators had multiple D-1 commits, but TW physically manhandled them. “The ‘Fondy Boys’ (Jason Lettau, Joe Searl, and Landon Holsen) utilized their football skills of hitting and toughness to deliver some punishment on their players,” said Carey. John Egge and Doug Johnson (Madison Memorial) each scored a pair of goals to lead the onslaught.
The boys from the Badger State won their next two games in lopsided fashion with impressive performances. They took down the Washington Little Capitals 9-1 in game two on Thursday, with Lettau (2g-2a) and Searl (1g-4a) leading the scoring.
Game 3 on Friday was also no contest as TW blanked Warwick, Rhode Island 10-0 behind the ‘Fondy Boys.’ Holsen (3g-1a), Searl (3a), and Lettau (1g-3a) once again led the way offensively. Goalie Bob Berg had a shutout and stopped 94% of shots faced and had a GAA of 1.41 in the first three contests.
“A manager of another team literally told me we were ‘the talk of the tournament,’ and only in our second year of existence,” recalled Carey. “I was so pleased with our players and coaches and proud to see how everyone on our bench represented the state of Wisconsin.”
The stellar play of Team Wisconsin earned them a quarterfinal match-up with the New Jersey Jr. Devils on Saturday. The New Jersey goalie looked mediocre in warm-ups, giving the red-clad TW squad a measure of confidence. But once the game started, the goalie, whose name was Geordan Murphy, looked more like Martin Brodeur than a midget level player.
“We had shot after shot, opportunity after opportunity, and Joe Pavelski even had a penalty shot,” noted Carey. “But (Murphy) somehow found a way to get a leg pad or even the butt end of his stick in the way and kept the puck out of the net.”
The 4-2 loss ended TW’s season. Murphy had 50 saves and after the game Coach Skille said, “we played a great game, did everything we asked them to do and had nothing to be ashamed of. We lost to a goalie.”
Nick Sirota (Beaver Dam) scored early in the first period but New Jersey countered late in the period and the teams skated off tied at one. The Jr. Devils scored a pair in the middle period and led 3-1 going into the third stanza. Andy Brandt (Wausau West) tallied in the middle of the period to cut the deficit to 3-2. But NJ scored with three minutes left to account for the final score.
It was especially heartbreaking because an Egge goal was disallowed and Pavelski was thwarted on his penalty shot. Both plays came in the final period and could have been the difference between finishing eighth in the tourney or winning a national title.
“What floors me over the whole experience is the little time we had as a group to prepare,” said Egge. “That (National) tourney was April 4-8. Literally about 3-4 weeks before that I was playing against Jake Dowell (Eau Claire Memorial) in the first round at high school state (tournament).”
The team ended an incredible season with a record of 28-6-2 and finished with a USHSHO (United States High School Hockey Online) ranking of seventh in the nation for U17 squads.
After the game Coach Skille said, “We proved our players can compete with kids from anywhere in the nation and win.
“The next step is to hunt down a national title.
That would come soon enough.
(Photo courtesy of Lisa Carey)
(Part 2 of a multi-part series about the creation and early success of Team Wisconsin.)
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