By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Two of this weekend’s Division 1 hockey semifinalists will be playing in this late round for the first time. Three of four teams left in the bracket are seeking their first MHSAA Finals championship on the ice.
And then there’s Detroit Catholic Central, top-ranked and with 13 past titles, and the favorite Rochester United, Saginaw Heritage and Traverse City Bay Reps must catch to make more history this winter.
This weekend’s pairings are as follows:
Division 1 – Friday
Detroit Catholic Central (27-1-1) vs. Rochester United (26-3), 5 p.m.
Saginaw Heritage (27-2) vs. Traverse City Bay Reps (24-5), 7:30 p.m.
FINALS – Saturday
Division 1 - 6 p.m.
Click for a full schedule of this weekend's games plus full results as they come in. Player statistics below are through the Regional round.
DETROIT CATHOLIC CENTRAL
Record/rank: 27-1-1, No. 1
Championship history: 13 MHSAA titles (most recent 2016), five runner-up finishes.
Coach: Brandon Kaleniecki, fourth season (101-18-2)
League finish: First in Michigan Interscholastic Hockey League North.
Best wins: 1-0 over No. 6 Salem in Quarterfinal, 6-0 over No. 13 Birmingham United in Regional Final, 6-0 and 5-1 over No. 3 Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, 4-1 over No. 4 Brighton, 1-0 over Division 2 No. 3 Livonia Stevenson, 1-0 over Division 2 No. 2 Trenton, 6-1 and 5-4 over Division 2 No. 4 Birmingham Brother Rice.
Players to watch: Joe Borthwick, sr. D (7 goals, 23 assists); Brendan Miles, jr. D (6 goals, 22 assists); Rylan Clemons, sr. F (25 goals, 28 assists); Kyle Gaffney, jr. F (20 goals, 22 assists).
Outlook: After three straight titles from 2014-16, DCC has finished runner-up and then as a semifinalist the last two, respectively. The Shamrocks are primed to take back the title – the lone loss and tie both were to out-of-state schools, the defeat in the team’s third game of the season. DCC has three straight shutouts and seven over its last eight games – and 13 total this winter. Senior goalie Zach Allan – a first-team all-stater last season – has three of those shutouts and a 1.44 goals-against average in 16 games, while senior Stephen Sleva has four shutouts and a 0.82 GAA over 12 contests. Borthwick was an all-state first-team defenseman working in front of Allan last season, and Miles earned an honorable mention. Five more players had scored at least 10 goals entering the week, with junior Dylan Dooley (13 goals/20 assists) also over 30 points and senior Carter Korpi (14 goals/14 assists) among a few on the verge.
Record/rank: 26-3, No. 5
Championship history: Has never appeared in an MHSAA championship game.
Coach: Bryan Kowalski, second season (37-12-5)
League finish: First in Oakland Activities Association Red.
Best wins: 4-3 over No. 3 Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in Quarterfinal, 3-2 over No. 9 Macomb Dakota in Regional Final, 3-0 over No. 12 Utica Eisenhower in Regional Quarterfinal, 2-1 over No. 7 Byron Center, 4-2 over No. 8 Farmington United, 4-1 over No. 13 Birmingham United.
Players to watch: Austin Streng, sr. F (30 goals, 23 assists); Marcello Munaco, sr. F (14 goals/22 assists); Michael Zyrek, sr. F (17 goals, 25 assists); Domenico Munaco, sr. G (1.44 goals-against average, 3 shutouts).
Outlook: Rochester will be playing at the Semifinals for the first time after navigating one of the toughest postseason paths in the state – with the Dakota win avenging one of its few losses this winter. Rochester has more than doubled its win total from last season, when the team finished 12-9-5. Juniors Jack Myers (11 goals/14 assists) and Caden Ebinger (10 goals/14 assists) are two more potent scorers, while senior defensemen Niko Mantzios and Kyle Crutchfield both had 19 assists entering the week and had combined for 14 goals. The co-operative program includes athletes from Rochester High and Rochester Adams.
Record/rank: 27-2, No. 2
Championship history: Division 1 runner-up 2018.
Coach: J.J. Bamberger, 11th season (203-86-10)
League finish: First in Saginaw Valley League.
Best wins: 5-2 over No. 14 Capital City in Quarterfinal, 3-2 over No. 3 Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, 6-1 over No. 11 Traverse City Bay Reps, 5-1 over No. 6 Salem, 7-1 over No. 4 Brighton, 6-2 over Division 2 No. 7 Davison.
Players to watch: Parker Severson, sr. F (28 goals, 25 assists); Brady Rappuhn, jr. F (24 goals, 38 assists); David Helpap, sr. F (15 goals, 30 assists); Jacob Best, sr. F (17 goals, 30 assists).
Outlook: The Hawks are now 49-7-3 over the last two seasons, with a number of standouts from last year’s first-time finalist team leading the way again. Helpap made the all-state first team a year ago, while Severson and Rappuhn earned honorable mentions and senior Jack Jesko (1.83 goals-against average) earned an honorable mention in goal. Senior Eddie Symons (19 goals/18 assists) is another veteran top scorer, and junior Matt Cole had 28 assists entering the week to go with eight goals. The only losses were to Division 2 semifinalists Hartland and Birmingham Brother Rice.
TRAVERSE CITY BAY REPS
Record/rank: 24-5, No. 11
Championship history: Has never appeared in an MHSAA Final.
Coach: Michael Matteucci, first season (24-5)
League finish: First in Northern Michigan Hockey League.
Best wins: 4-3 (OT) over No. 7 Byron Center in Quarterfinal, 2-1 over No. 10 Rockford in Regional Final, 5-4 over Traverse City West, 5-3 over Big Rapids, 3-2 and 5-4 over Petoskey.
Players to watch: Jake Stevenson, sr. F (30 goals, 24 assists); Christopher Deneweth, sr. D (12 goals, 23 assists); Kaleb Miller, soph. F (20 goals, 22 assists); Logan Kerry, sr. F (14 goals, 27 assists).
Outlook: Bay Reps – a cooperative of Traverse City St. Francis, Elk Rapids, Bear Lake, Kalkaska and Kingsley – will play in the Semifinals for the first time, and is riding a 10-game winning streak. Stevenson earned an all-state honorable mention last season and is one of nine seniors – five others make up two of the top defense pairs plus goalie Kamerin Lannen. Matteucci previously served as an assistant – and played in the NHL and multiple minor leagues – before taking over the program this winter.
PHOTO: Detroit Catholic Central’s Dylan Dooley works to clear the puck against Orchard Lake St. Mary’s this season.
When Gage Looker went down with an ACL injury in Gaylord’s first football game this fall, Liz Harding – president of the Blue Devils’ hockey boosters – was absolutely devastated.
Looker, an all-conference hockey defenseman last winter, was playing, as a senior, in his first-ever varsity football game. Harding, also Looker’s mom, was there.
“I caught the one and only picture of him playing football just before he injured himself,” Harding recalled. “I was devastated!”
Doctors indicated surgery was necessary and recovery would prevent Looker from getting back on the ice, the football field and the track where Looker had dreams of great success this year.
“Knowing hockey is his passion — and thoughts of him not playing did not set well with me — Gage started what I would call standard physical therapy a couple days after surgery and then added an additional blood flow therapy with our local trainer to his weekly routine,” Harding said. “Through his hard work and determination, he is back on the ice.”
The Blue Devils, after graduating their other four all-conference players from last winter, were 2-11 this year when Looker returned to the ice against Big North Conference rival Petoskey. Gaylord has won three of seven since.
Gaylord coach Jamie Voss believes Looker’s return was pretty much a miracle. And he thinks Looker is playing at about 80 percent despite being only a few months removed from the injury.
“Gage tore his ACL and was told by doctors his sports life was over,” Voss said. “Gage would not accept this, and he trained harder than any kid I have ever witnessed to prove the doctors wrong.”
Sans injury, Voss notes Looker was certain to graduate on several all-time Gaylord hockey record lists.
“The reports on his progress and rehab were literally off the charts for this type of injury,” Voss said. “His doctors reported early that they have never seen this occur before regarding the strength developments in the afflicted areas that support his ACL tear.”
Voss admitted he had to hold his breath a little – as many Gaylord supporters did – when Looker joined the starting lineup against Petoskey. That moment came after just a week on the ice, including full contact practices.
“More important than records to Gage was his commitment and obligation to be our team leader as our compete level was predictably down this season,” Voss said. “Gage is one of the best athletes and citizens that I have ever been allowed to coach.
“He is not only a leader to the players on and off the ice, but Gage also is the kind of kid that coaches learn from,” Voss went on. “He is mature beyond his years.”
Looker, who started playing hockey at 4 years old, dabbled with football as a freshman although an eighth-grade hip injury kept him away from the field until this fall. Looker’s size – 6-foot-3, 245 pounds – led to many encouragements to give football another try.
“I went the rest of my high school career being told that I needed to play football,” Looker said. “So I said ‘why not’ my senior year because I could use the extra strength for hockey.”
Looker knew the morning after his one-and-only career football game that he needed medical attention promptly. A quick MRI showed extensive damage.
Looker was told he literally “blew apart” his ACL.
“My stomach dropped,” Looker said. “I was not ready for that at all.
“I was shown what my PCL looked like and then went to where my ACL should be, and it was gone — some say it was deleted,” Looker continued. “I was told I will not be able to play sports for about seven to nine months, and I was speechless.”
Two months after surgery and extensive physical therapy, Looker tried to skate. It went so well he began to entertain thoughts of playing hockey again. He may aspire to compete in track & field this spring.
“He runs a 56-second quarter mile and throws the shot put 48 feet, 10 inches,” Voss said of his dominating defender. “And although he is restricted from running, something tells me this kid will run track this spring.”
While it is not the senior hockey season it could have been without the injury, many are glad to just have Looker on the ice. His mom is among them.
“I am overjoyed to have him back on the ice,” Harding said. “At least he is getting in a few games and is out there making a difference.
“The smile on his face is priceless,” she continued. “Perhaps he'll continue with track as he is set to break records there too.”
Rehab fresh out of surgery was “very boring,” so Looker started intensifying his recovery with therapy four days a week for a few months.
“It was a lot of commitment, but I needed my senior year of hockey,” Looker said. “I was doing the basic things, and then I had a machine that could stimulate my muscles and pump blood to my knee.
“It is called ARPneuro,” he continued. “I was skating with that on my leg as well as doing mini workouts at home.”
ARP — accelerated, recovery and performance — reportedly accelerates recovery time by decreasing chronic pain and increasing range of motion without the use of medications.
“I was always putting as much work in as I could,” Looker said. “It definitely paid off in the end.”
Looker’s coach agrees.
“I have never heard of this, nor witnessed it,” Voss said. “Gage Looker is an anomaly, and in my opinion a different type of tough.
“Gage returned to practice full contact three months after he tore his ACL,” Voss continued. “And he played his first hockey game logging 30 of 51 minutes a week later.”
Looker credits the support and effort of his medical team and his teammates for helping him get back on track. However, no one gets more credit that the booster president.
“My mom and teammates helped me through it,” he said. “My mom was always on me about doing my workouts and keeping me disciplined.”
Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Gaylord’s Gage Looker has returned to the ice this season only a few months after a serious knee injury. (Middle) Looker, right, watches his football teammates from the sideline this fall. (Below) Looker tries to stuff the puck past Tawas’ goaltender. (Photos by Rob DeForge/RD Sports Photo.)