By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
PLYMOUTH — The students in the large Romeo cheering section might have been nervous.
Some of his teammates might have been getting nervous too.
Nolan Kare, however, couldn't allow himself to give in to the natural human reaction as the MHSAA Division 2 hockey championship appeared to be slipping away from the Bulldogs' grasp.
After scoring three straight goals during a frantic 5:02 stretch of the second period, a seasoned Livonia Stevenson squad held a 4-2 lead over a Romeo team that had never played on the biggest stage in Michigan high school hockey.
Kare stopped the last 11 shots he faced over the final 22 minutes and 21 seconds, backstopping Romeo to a 6-4 come-from-behind victory over Stevenson on Saturday at USA Hockey Arena.
"I know we kind of let up a little bit, but our team has so much heart," Kare said. "I know that if I just make the saves I'm supposed to make and try to rob a few that our team is going to give us the best chance to win. I know if I'm doing that, then I'm going to give them the best opportunity to put us in a position to get back."
Senior star Logan Jenuwine's tip-in goal during a five-minute power play with 10:21 left in the game snapped a 4-4 tie. Steven Morris scored an empty-net goal with 29.1 seconds left to seal the first MHSAA hockey title in the 15-year history of the Romeo program.
Suddenly, a school that had no MHSAA team championships going into the 2014-15 school year has three over the past 16 months. It began with the volleyball team winning the 2014 Class A championship and continued when the football team upset Detroit Cass Tech in the 2015 Division 1 title game at Ford Field.
"Before the game, we were saying if the football team could beat Cass Tech with 20 Division I (college) players coming up, we could beat Livonia Stevenson," Romeo senior forward Nick Blankenburg said. "Shocking the world and being part of such a great team feels incredible. To win a state championship for our school, to get those rings like our football team and volleyball team, I'll remember this my entire life."
Like the football and volleyball teams, the hockey team benefitted from a huge outpouring of support in a matchup that was witnessed by two passionate and energized fan bases.
"There's just something special about Romeo," said Kare, who finished with 29 saves and led the state with all 27 of Romeo's victories. "It's a small-town feel. You could see it out there. The entire town's out there for us. Just like football, just like volleyball, we had the whole community behind our back. We're just unbelievably blessed to have the best fan base, the best family, the best support out of anybody."
The atmosphere in which the Romeo and Stevenson players competed is one of the things that sets high school hockey apart from its competitors. Senior forward Ben Kowalske, who played in three MHSAA Finals for the Spartans, said neighbors will stop him and congratulate him on how the team is performing. Kowalske is the lone holdover from Stevenson's 2013 MHSAA Division 2 championship team and is a member of the MHSAA's Student Advisory Council.
"Being on the Council, you learn ideas and what other schools do," Kowalske said. "It's really amazing people are so interested in what we're doing. To have everyone come out to the game really means the world and really means a lot to us that we're doing something right here. You saw Romeo, too. They had the city support. It's cool. You try not to let it distract you during the game, but now that it's over, it's cool. It wasn't the outcome we wanted, but we did the best we could. It's really cool the community could come together over something and just forget about the world for a couple hours and just have fun."
A defensive battle that was tied 1-1 for the first 23 minutes changed in a hurry as the second period neared its midway point.
Romeo (27-2-1) grabbed a 2-1 lead at 6:18 of the second period on a goal by Jenuwine, but that only served to wake up the Spartans.
As Jenuwine's goal was being announced, Nick Beers scored the equalizer for the Spartans just 19 seconds later. Stevenson took its first lead 44 seconds later on a goal by Shane Leonard. Riding the crest of that momentum, the Spartans built their lead to 4-2 at the 11:39 mark on a goal by Nate Sudek.
With the game possibly slipping away, Romeo coach Nick Badder called what proved to be a critical timeout.
"We were down, they had all the momentum," Badder said. "I was telling (Adam) Krefski and the other assistants, 'Right now, they have all the momentum. We're on our heels, and we felt it. We calmed down the boys. Once they calmed down and realized it was shift by shift, we kind of took over."
Romeo got right back into the game before the second period ended, getting within 4-3 on Brett Lanski's second goal of the game with 2:34 left in the period and tying it when Luke Kaczor tipped in a shot from the point by Logan Ganfield with 1:30 to go in the period. Between the teams, six goals were scored during a 9:13 span.
Romeo was presented with a golden opportunity to break the tie when a Stevenson player received a five-minute major and game disqualification at 4:38 of the third period.
A power play that featured the highest-scoring player in the state wasn't going to miss over the course of five minutes. Jenuwine, who had 46 goals and 50 assists this season, scored what proved to be the game-winner at the 5:39 mark when he redirected a shot from the right point by Ganfield.
"It was going wide," said Jenuwine, who had two goals and three assists. "That's what I've been trying to work on mostly is get to the front of the net. I'm not really a guy to get to the front of the net; I did. It was a good shot by Logan Ganfield, and I got a tip on it."
Stevenson coach David Mitchell didn't blame the penalty for the loss.
"To say it turned there, it turned because they capitalized," Mitchell said. "They still had to capitalize, so you give them credit for capitalizing. We still had multiple chances to score and they had multiple chances to score. As a coach, it's so tough to explain to a bunch of 15-, 16-, 17-year-old kids that it's not one moment, it's an entire game. There were 51 minutes that were played out there where multiple other things happened."
Stevenson (22-7-1) had three offensive-zone face-offs in the final 1:25, but couldn't generate a scoring threat.
There might have been another had Morris' shot from inside his own blue line missed the target, but he found the center of the net for the game-clinching empty-netter with 29.1 seconds to go. For good measure, Morris blocked a shot in the final seconds.
Before Saturday, the Bulldogs' only playoff run beyond the Regionals came last season when they lost 8-2 to Grosse Pointe South in the MHSAA Quarterfinals.
"Last year's loss in the playoffs hurt," Badder said. "Grosse Pointe South took it to us; they kind of owned us. We didn't have a playoff game plan; we didn't have a playoff style last year. This year, I was so hard on these guys. We lost two games, and I was still, 'Guys, we're not doing this right, we're not doing that right.' They're like, 'Coach, we just won 6-1.' I was trying to get a point across to them that you've got to be a playoff team. You have to hit. You've got to block shots. You've got to get the puck in your own end. It's not the high-flying (Blankenburg) and (Jenuwine) show. We're a team, and the team will win in the end."
PHOTOS: (Top) Romeo players raise their first MHSAA championship trophy to the crowd after Saturday’s Division 2 Final. (Middle) Romeo’s Steven Morris (36) and Stevenson’s Sam Judd work to gain possession of the puck. (Click for more from Andrew Knapik.)
Twenty years ago, Kwin Morris and Jeff Guy were teammates on an MHSAA Quarterfinal-qualifying hockey team.
Guy even scored the winning goal in the Regional Final for Bay Area Reps, which topped Traverse City West 2-1.
This summer’s accomplishment, though, will go deeper in the history books.
Guy and Morris teamed up with Joe Lorenz to complete a dream that started a decade ago. They crossed all five of the Great Lakes on paddle boards while raising awareness and funds for water quality.
They put their balance, endurance and stick-handling skills together for the cause.
‘After 10 years and over one hundred grand raised for the lakes, it feels amazing,” Morris said. “I think the best part is knowing my kids will grow up knowing their old man did something cool for the environment in a unique way.”
It all started at a December social event in Traverse City. Guy, a financial adviser, and Morris, a middle school science teacher, had just gotten into paddle boarding when they began to wonder if they could cross Lake Michigan.
Lorenz, a personal trainer, promptly gave assurances they could — and joined them — even though he had never been on a paddle board prior to the holiday gathering.
Morris, Guy and Lorenz successfully crossed Lake Michigan in 2015, pausing in the cold of the night to look at the Northern Lights. They finished the nearly 100-kilometer journey in just under 25 hours. That accomplishment convinced them to launch Stand Up for Great Lakes, a non-profit organization to raise money and awareness for the protection of the lakes.
The trio also is supporting the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research, a non-profit housed at the University of Michigan.
“It feels amazing to have finished crossing all five lakes and complete a lifelong goal,” Guy acknowledged. “The dollars and awareness we have raised is incredible, and hopefully it continues to grow.”
Lake Huron was the toughest to cross by far, the former Reps noted. The 90-mile, 29-hour paddle brought seven hours of rain and high waves.
“Plus Joe knocked me in and Jeff fell in after catching a fish,” Morris observed.
Ontario was the team’s second-hardest challenge and the shortest paddle. Huge waves from the side all day took quite a toll on the paddlers, who were accompanied by safety boats on each crossing.
Lake Superior featured glassy water, a spectacular sunset and the paddlers pausing to conduct a ceremony over the Edmund Fitzgerald shipwreck. The northernmost Great Lake ranks as the group’s favorite.
Guy graduated from Kalkaska High School in 2003 and went on to play hockey at Hope College. He also played football, baseball and golf for the Blazers. He and his wife, Melissa, have a daughter, Emma.
Morris graduated in 2005 from Elk Rapids High School, where he also played baseball. He went on to get a teaching degree from Western Michigan University. He and his wife, Megan, have two children, Fitz and Knox. He now works for his former school district, teaching science.
The pair played for the Reps through a co-op hosted by Traverse City St. Francis that included athletes from Charlevoix, Elk Rapids, Kalkaska, Kingsley, Lake Leelanau St Mary, Mancelona and Suttons Bay. The Reps’ first coach was Michigan High School Hockey Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee Rex Luxton. He coached through 2008.
Morris and Guy look back at their high school playing days and coach with fondness.
“We had some great teams, and I think I still have the career goal record there,” Guy recalled. “Also, our coach on the Reps Rex Luxton was highly motivational to me while playing for him and later in life.”
Morris echoed Guy.
“I loved the whole experience,” Morris said. “Playing for my high school … Friday night games … school rivalries … playing for Rex Luxton … amazing friends and teammates — almost surreal that it will have been 20 years.”
The former coaching staff of the Reps are not at all surprised Morris and Guy challenged themselves to make a difference for the Great Lakes.
The coaching staff remembers Guy as a natural scorer coming through with big goals, and Morris as a strong two-way player who scored five goals in one period in Sault Ste. Marie. The past coaches also remember all the traveling the two did for practice and games because of the geographic nature of the squad.
“I had no idea they had any interest in the water kind of stuff,” Luxton said of his former players’ feat. “When I started following their bid to raise awareness, it didn’t surprise me they would attempt something like this.
“I think it illustrates how much determination they have and how much hard work they were willing to put in,” he continued. “It is just outstanding, particularly with the cold weather in the Great Lakes.”
Cody Inglis, a senior assistant director for the MHSAA, was an assistant coach for the Reps during all of Morris and Guy’s time with the co-op. He finds himself beaming with pride and happiness knowing these former players are giving back and making it a better world.
“What Jeff and Kwin have done physically and mentally to cross all of the Great Lakes on stand-up paddle boards is remarkable in itself,” Inglis pointed out. “When you add in the fact that they have put in charitable causes and the preservation of the Great Lakes as a reason for doing it – it makes it even more special.
“It’s not surprising given my recollection and remembrances of Jeff and Kwin, as they were really good hockey players and better people.”
High school hockey is where Morris and Guy’ friendship blossomed. Spending 24 or more hours together — and with Lorenz — has forged a greater lifetime bond that already had included being a part of each other’s weddings.
But they admit they had no inkling of this type of accomplishment back in high school.
“Sports were the most important thing in my life in high school,” Guy revealed. “Working really hard to win as many games as possible was the main goal – along with getting good grades and trying to get into a good college.”
But teamwork, learned on the ice and through other high school sports, can make anything possible.
“Any sport where you have to work as a team helps push yourself out of your comfort zone,” Morris concluded. “That's where the best things in life happen.”
2023 Made In Michigan
August 1: Vast Experience Shapes Retired MLB-er Gates Into 3-Time Finals-Winning Coach - Read
July 25: After All-American Career, Rockford's Bennett Making Impact as Mat Mentor - Read
July 20: Oakridge 3-Sport Star Potts Applying Lessons to 'Second Chapter' in Sales - Read
July 18: Frankfort Hoops Staff Bolstered by Past Stars Giving Back in Banktson, Kreski - Read
July 12: Championship Memories, High School Tennis' Impact Stick with Hackett Pair - Read
July 6: Brother Rice Finals Hero Aiming to Ace Family Life, Financial World - Read
July 5: Lapeer West 4-Time Finals Winner Set to Build Champions at Oklahoma - Read
PHOTOS (Top) Clockwise from top left: Jeff Guy celebrates a goal while playing for Traverse Bay Reps with Kwin Morris to his left, Guy (left) and Morris (right) take a photo after one of their paddle board trips, and Morris bringing the puck up the ice for the Reps. (Middle) Guy, Morris and Joe Lorenz take a photo together on the lake shore. (Below) Morris accepts a medal during the 2004-05 season. (Photos courtesy of Jeff Guy, Kwin and Jo Morris.)