Second Half reports
PLYMOUTH — Nobody could have known it at the time, but Houghton’s hockey team reached its quota of goals Saturday after only 56 seconds of play.
Sam Evola of Detroit Country Day might give up one goal, but that’s going to be it when he plays at USA Hockey Arena.
Evola closed the door the rest of the way, backstopping the Yellowjackets to their second straight MHSAA Division 3 championship with a 4-1 victory over Houghton.
Named the state’s Mr. Hockey as a junior last season, Evola is one of the most clutch high school goaltenders to come out of Michigan.
When the pressure is at its greatest, Evola has been at his best, stopping 91 of 95 shots for a .958 save percentage in four Semifinal and championship games the last two seasons in Plymouth. He gave up only one goal in each of the four games.
Over 11 games during the two postseason runs, he gave up only nine goals.
So, it doesn’t matter when the goals have come – there usually isn’t going to be another one against Evola.
“There’s a lot of pressure, but you’ve got to stay focused and keep your eye on the puck and keep your head in the game,” Evola said. “You can’t get distracted by what’s on the outside. You’ve got to keep your focus on what’s inside the rink.”
Evola finished with 25 saves after allowing a goal by Seth Francois 56 seconds into the game.
“One of my mottos is you shouldn’t give up a goal in the first minute or last minute of a period,” Evola said. “I didn’t do that. You’ve got to learn from your mistake, correct it and just keep it up. You can’t keep thinking about that goal. It’s going to egg on you and make you worse; you’ve got to bounce back.”
Country Day (24-4-2) has won back-to-back MHSAA championships after ending a 37-year drought last season. After winning only one Regional in 26 years, the Yellowjackets have become a force in Division 3, winning four straight Regionals.
To hear eighth-year coach Frank Novock describe the evolution of his program, the current players are the beneficiaries of what was built by players from his earlier teams.
“The guys who came before these guys, the captains, we didn’t have the greatest win-loss records, but the bar was set to a high standard,” Novock said. “It’s on cruise control with the leaders and seniors I have, and the same thing with the years past. It’s not always easy, it’s not always fun, but when you put that sweater on here, you’re going to have to be part of it or you’re going to be gone. These guys have continued to carry the torch. I can’t thank the guys enough that came before to set the example. We’re building in the right direction.”
The Yellowjackets regrouped after Houghton took its quick lead, tying the game 1-1 on a goal by Lucas Krol with 1:37 left in the opening period.
Dallas Hood scored what proved to be the winning goal, skating left to right across the slot and putting a shot inside the far post with 1:20 left in the second period to make it a 2-1 game.
The Gremlins (23-6-1) had a five-on-three power play for the first 1 minute, 26 seconds of the third period. Not only did they fail to capitalize on the two-man advantage, but they allowed a goal at the 2:01 mark to Mickey VanAntwerp.
“The biggest turning point in the game was we didn’t score on the five-on-three,” Houghton coach Corey Markham said. “We had a couple good looks and just missed. Very shortly after, they scored to make it 3-1. That was a huge point in the game. We didn’t quite recover and get enough offensive push after that point.”
Krol sent his second goal of the game into an empty net with 52.7 seconds remaining to end the scoring.
Houghton was attempting to win its first MHSAA championship since 1982. The Gremlins have lost four times in the championship game since then.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Houghton senior defenseman Kevin Bostwick said. “Our community is just so special. They’re always behind us. It hurts really bad not to bring this one home to them.”
Houghton goalie Jimmy Pietila made 23 saves.
PHOTOS: (Top) Detroit Country Day players celebrate during Saturday’s Division 3 championship win at USA Hockey Arena. (Middle) Houghton’s Milo Schaefer (7) and Ty Halonen (10) do their best to lock down Country Day’s Dallas Hood.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)