The Superior Spartans program has played a total of 77 games at the WIAA State High School Hockey Tournament since the tournament started in 1971. The rest of the boys field has played just 52. Notre Dame Academy has played only four.
That should tell you something of the longevity of the Spartan program, and of the growth of hockey throughout the state of Wisconsin.
The Spartans are looking for their 13th championship while the Tritons are looking for their first. This battle of the #1 (NDA) and #2 (Superior) teams in the state should be one of the premiere games of the tournament, and is a fine argument for coaches making the case that the tournament should be seeded.
The two teams met twice already this year. In their first meeting Notre Dame captured a 3-2 victory in the Duluth Hilltopper Tournament in Minnesota. In their second meeting, Notre Dame took a 5-2 win at the Resch Center in the opening round of the Showdown in Titletown.
WiPH asked coach Cory McCracken what the two games against Superior have taught him and if he sees an area he can exploit in the Spartans. McCracken said, "Honestly, we both have two games worth of film to watch on each other. The biggest thing at this point of the year is execution. We know and expect a very hard fought tightly contested hockey game. We are more focused on the things we do well and executing those."
Notre Dame returned nearly their entire semi-final team from last year's state tournament. The Triton offense is led by Brett Gruber (29g-26a) and Mason Appleton (10g-32a). Riley Christensen (22g-17a), Steven Phillips (21g-16a) and Jason Reynolds (14g-17a) give this team five forwards with more than 30 points.
And don't forget about Player of the Year finalist Tim Davison (9g-31a) on the blue line.
Team Wisconsin goalie Chris Nell mans the pipes for the Tritons, during the regular season Nell has a .918 save percentage, and a 1.66 goals against average.
For the Spartans, the offense is led by senior Nolan Holcombe (17g-23a) and junior Daniel Litchke (20g-20a). This high powered team also features four additional forwards over the 20 point mark: Caleb Dushkin (10g-14a), Aaron Miller (8g-12a), Gerald Mikel (9g-11a) and Steven Mikel (9g-11a).
Like the Tritons, the Spartans have their own Player of the Year finalist on the blue line. This time in the person of Brett Bukowski (10g-14a).
Scott Crawford will be the likely goaltender for the Spartans. On the regular season Crawford had an .885 save percentage and 3.08 goals against average, but those numbers are deceptive, thanks to the powerhouse Lake Superior Conference.
When asked about Superior's offense, coach McCracken said, "Superior is a very fast, no nonsense, vertical team. We have a lot of respect for the way they play the game. Very talented group of players that have been tested all year long. Again it is more about staying within our game plan and structure than anything else at this point. We know what we have been successful with against Soup and what has not worked. Litchke and Holcombe have had outstanding seasons. The Mikel brothers pose a threat as well. Superior is a very deep and balanced team. They get production from all their lines and their D are effective at chipping in as well. They have played Duluth East, Hermantown and Marshall school tough in the last part of their schedule. I would be shocked if the game is not a one or two goal game when it’s all said and done."
Player of the Year Finalists: Coach McCracken said it best when talking about what Davison and Bukowki would bring to this game:
"Tim and Brett are very deserving candidates. Both will have a tremendous impact on the game both on and off the ice. Nobody outside of their respective teams will get a chance to witness their leadership ability….which is one of the biggest assets they can give their own teams outside of their play on the ice.
Bukowski has been good in both games that we have played against Superior and I expect him to be at his best again on Thursday. With both being Seniors, the sense of urgency they will play with will be obvious.
Tim probably will be more noticeable because of the style of player he is. Brett is a solid stay at home first pass D man. The casual hockey fan may not appreciate a player like Brett. Our players and coaching staff certainly appreciate what Brett brings to the table.
I would expect both players to be special, it is a special atmosphere and the big stage!"
BOTTOM LINE: The old addage is that "it is hard to beat a team three times in a season." I've always believed that is garbage. It is hard to beat a good team any time, but after you've already done it twice it isn't going to be any harder the third time.
Webjr's prediction: Notre Dame 3, Superior 2