Hoisting the hardware
Wildcats win regional championship with 4-0 win over Cheboygan
GAYLORD –The Alpena High School hockey team’s magical season on the ice continues as the Wildcats won their first regional championship in 12 years, shutting out Cheboygan 4-0 in Saturday’s regional final game at the Otsego County SportsPlex in Gaylord.
“I’m so proud. What these kids have accomplished this year to get a regional title that’s all you can ask for,” Alpena coach Chris Limback said. “When we set up the schedule this year it about challenging the kids, challenging myself and we handled it quite well.”
The Wildcats advance to Wednesday’s quarterfinal matchup against Houghton in Sault Ste. Marie at 7 p.m.
As special as winning a regional championship is, the Wildcats (23-4-1) made more history than just winning their first regional crown since 2006-07.
Alpena tied a school record for wins in a season with 23 and the Wildcats have won 12 games in a row.
It’s also the fourth time in school history that an Alpena hockey team has won 23 games and first time since 1982-1983 . The 1980-81 and 1981-82 teams also won 23 games.
“It’s a huge number. When you reflect on the season, all the accomplishments we’ve had, it’s truly incredible. Twenty three wins with the schedule we’ve played, along with our 12 wins in a row right now, that’s just incredible and we were on the road a lot and we know how to play on the road, know how to get ready and now we’re regional champs,” Limback said. For much of the game, Alpena took it to the Chiefs, especially in the final two periods.
The two teams were scoreless after one period. Alpena had a goal waved off with 49 seconds left when Owen Limback fired a slap shot on net and Blaise Keller redirected the shot into the net. Keller was called for a high stick and the goal was waived off.
“This game was very similar to our last one, where we struggled the first period and them came out and played much better in the final two periods,” Limback said. “Once we opened the game up, we seemed to play smooth the rest of the way and we didn’t have any worries down the stretch.”
Alpena kept the pressure on and dominated the rest of the way, putting together a huge second period.
Charlie Halleck opened the scoring and put the Wildcats on top just over three minutes into the period when he slammed home a rebound on assists from Limback and Colby Plowman.
Four minutes later, the Wildcats extended the lead when Limback skated in around the Cheboygan net and dumped a puck back to Colby Plowman.
Plowman quickly sent it back to Limback in front of the net and Limback sent a wrist shot underneath the cross bar to put Alpena ahead 2-0 with 9:43 left in the second period.
Alpena kept up the pressure and cashed in on a power play opportunity with 6:13 left in the period. This time, Plowman buried a rebound goal on assists from Halleck and Limback to put the Wildcats ahead 3-0 after two periods.
“Winning is great, especially with that regional title, it’s so special. It’s a great group of kids and I’ve been with this group for a long time and you can see the hard work and growth paying off,” Limback said. “You could just see the way we controlled the game and even our best, we weren’t really great today, but these kids are still skilled enough that they can create havoc every time they’re on the ice.”
After a dominant second period, the Wildcats and a large contingent of Alpena fans could sense Alpena was close to a regional title.
Winning this regional title was a little bit sweeter for Limback, who coached the Wildcats to their last regional championship and returned behind Alpena’s bench for the 2017-18 season.
“Looking back, it was actually nice when I was asked to leave because I was able to devote my time to this group when they were playing with the (Thunder Bay) Wrecks and it was a special group. This group would always skate against the older kids and loved to compete and get out of their comfort zone. This group of kids has seen the best competition and they believe they can win and I always thought it was possible that we could compete for games like this,” Limback said. “Without a doubt this one is sweeter. It’s hard to be told that a team doesn’t want you as coach anymore and your pride is hit so for me as a person, you just learn that you have to keep battling and never give up, that’s they same message I send to the kids and now we are where we’re at today. What we’ve accomplished is really rewarding and it’s something that I’ll be able to look back on years from now and say what a run, what an absolute run.”
Alpena went into defensive mode and didn’t allow many scoring opportunities, but did score the final goal of the game with 13:10 to play when captain Kyle VanDusen collected a rebound and scored on assists from Halleck and Limback.
Alpena goalie Cooper Black was once again strong between the pipes and was pulled in the final minutes of the game. Jimmy Bolanowski finished the game, making big saves late to preserve the shutout victory.
“It’s amazing feeling to have Cooper back there. He’s arguably one of the best goalies in the state and he didn’t get overly worked today which is good and he’s going to have to be great come Wednesday,” Limback said. “These are the kind of games coming up that a goalie can win and I hope he’s fired up for it because that’ll be a great test for him, myself and the rest of the team.”
The celebration was on when the buzzer sound and the Wildcats piled up around their net and received a standing ovation from the Alpena faithful.
Houghton knocked off Calumet 3-2 in a regional final Saturday and improved its record to 21-5-1 ahead of Wednesday’s game. The winner of Wednesday’s game advances to the state semifinals in Plymouth on Friday.
“It’s hard to believe when you think about it, we’re one game away. We’ve faced these kind of teams all season long so we’re ready. We just have to come out and be great on Wednesday,” Limback said. “It’s exciting, one night to give it all you got to get to the final four so it’s an amazing place to be in right now.”