Second Half reports
PLYMOUTH — Brendan Hill was hooked on high school hockey long before he played his first shift at Detroit Catholic Central.
“When I was like 8 years old, I would come to these games and watch and see how rowdy the student section is,” said Hill, a senior defenseman. “I had a dream to play at C.C. It just happened. There’s no words for it.”
The dream came with a dream ending for Hill and the Shamrocks’ 12 seniors, as their final act in a Catholic Central uniform was celebrating an MHSAA Division 1 championship after a 3-1 victory over Saginaw Heritage on Saturday at USA Hockey Arena.
The game was played before an enthusiastic crowd of about 3,000 fans, including two large and vocal student sections.
“You have all your closest buddies up there going bananas,” senior forward Carter Korpi said. “It’s awesome. It makes it that much better.”
The atmosphere in which the game was played is the biggest selling point for coaches like Catholic Central’s Brandon Kaleniecki when they try to persuade students in their own hallways to choose the high school game over the travel ranks.
Another selling point is the caliber of play in Michigan. There was a time when Catholic Central would steamroll through the MHSAA Tournament, facing little opposition. Those days are gone.
The Shamrocks, heavy favorites to win it all this winter, had to survive a 1-0 Quarterfinal with Salem and a 4-2 Semifinal with Rochester United and needed an empty-net goal in the final minute before they could exhale against Heritage.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of big programs out there,” Kaleniecki said. “That’s what makes winning so difficult, because you never know. The last three games were all close, tight games that required everything we had to get through it. There is a lot of talent in the state of Michigan. There is a lot of talent in high school hockey.
“If you watched all the games today, the environment speaks for itself and why more and more kids are going to want to play high school hockey. Guys from this team are going on to play juniors. That option is there. People are starting to realize that; hopefully more do, because you get to experience something like this. As a coach, I love it. I’m so excited to be a part of it.”
This senior class was at risk of being one of the few at Catholic Central to not win an MHSAA championship during its time in the program.
It was the 14th MHSAA title for the Shamrocks, tying them with Trenton for second most all-time. Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood leads the way with 17 titles. Only three times in the last 22 seasons has Catholic Central gone more than one year without a championship.
The Shamrocks fell short against Brighton each of the last two seasons, losing 5-2 in the 2017 championship game and 2-1 in the 2018 Semifinals.
“When you have that good of players on the ice and off the ice, when they’d lose it’s tragic,” Catholic Central senior forward Mitch Morris said. “I’m really happy we all got to celebrate. It’s bittersweet. You feel bad for (the last two senior classes). You wish you could have done more. I hope all the underclassmen realize that’s why you play.”
Catholic Central took a 1-0 lead when senior forward Rylan Clemons skated in from the left circle and put a shot from close quarters under the crossbar over the right shoulder of Heritage goalie Jack Jesko at 9:22 of the first period.
Jesko kept it a one-goal game when he made perhaps the save of the year in high school hockey. Down on his side during a scramble around the net, Jesko made a glove save on a shot by Zach Borchardt, who appeared to have almost the entire net available with 7:29 left in the second period.
“I was just trying to throw my glove out and give myself a chance,” said Jesko, whose 44 saves on 46 shots ranked fifth for an MHSAA Final. “Happy to hit it. I just kept my focus and acted like it was just a normal save; don’t get too high and don’t get too low.”
The Shamrocks finally got some breathing room when Ryan Marra deflected a shot from the point by Luke Collins past Jesko with 10:41 left in the game.
The Hawks pulled Jesko for an extra attacker with 2:12 remaining and quickly cashed in, cutting the deficit to 2-1 on a goal by Edison Symons with 1:56 to go.
Marra scored into an empty net with 54.4 seconds left to seal the Shamrocks’ victory.
For Heritage, it was the second straight loss in the MHSAA championship game against an established power. The Hawks lost to Brighton, 5-2, in last year’s title game. Before last year, the only team from Saginaw to reach a championship game was Saginaw Nouvel, which lost in the 1990 Class B Final.
“We’re really trying to make strides in getting our team noticed throughout the state, and not just in our area,” Heritage coach J.J. Bamberger said. “This is our fifth final four appearance and second state championship game, coming up short both times. For a school like ours in our area, that’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Detroit Catholic Central players celebrate their Division 1 championship with their fans Saturday night at USA Hockey Arena. (Middle) Heritage goalie Jack Jesko stretches to block the net as DCC’s Zach Borchardt winds up for a shot.
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.)