By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Seven of 12 teams playing in this weekend's Ice Hockey Semifinals find themselves a mere two victories from the first MHSAA championship in their programs' histories.
If pre-tournament rankings continue to play out, at least one of those hopefuls will celebrate Saturday at Plymouth's USA Hockey Arena.
The pairings are as follows:
Division 2 – Thursday
Saline vs. Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern/Eastern, 5 p.m.
Birmingham Brother Rice vs. Hartland, 7:30 p.m.
Division 3 - Friday
Flint Powers Catholic vs. Calumet, 11 a.m.
Warren DeLaSalle vs. Dearborn Divine Child, 1:30 p.m.
Division 1 – Friday
Northville vs. Brighton, 5 p.m.
Grandville vs. Detroit Catholic Central 7:30 p.m.
FINALS – Saturday
Division 2 - 10 a.m.
Division 3 - 2 p.m.
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 except for Grandville's, which include the Quarterfinal.
Record/rank: 22-6-1, No. 3
Championship history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 2013), two runner-up finishes.
Coach: Paul Moggach, 22nd season (411-144-43)
League finish: First in Kensington Lakes Activities Association Central and Kensington Conference.
Best wins: 2-1 (Regional Final) and 5-3 over No. 1 Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, 2-1 over No. 2 Detroit Catholic Central, 7-2 over No. 9 Detroit U-D Jesuit, 1-0 and 1-0 over Division 2 No. 4 Livonia Stevenson, 4-3 over Division No. 5 Livonia Churchill, 2-0 over Division 2 No. 7 Plymouth.
Players to watch: Jake Crespi, senior F (28 goals, 26 assists); Adam Conquest, jr. F (15 goals, 18 assists); Ben Peterson, sr. F (11 goals, 19 assists); Logan Neaton, sr. G (1.55 goals-against average, 5 shutouts).
Outlook: Make it five Semifinal appearances in six seasons as the Bulldogs are back after finishing runner-up a year ago. Brighton has beaten the best, including top-ranked Orchard Lake St. Mary’s a second time to get here, and done so after going 1-3-1 to finish the regular season. Neaton made the all-state first team last season, and Brighton has given up only two goals over four playoff games.
DETROIT CATHOLIC CENTRAL
Record/rank: 21-7-1, No. 2
Championship history: 13 MHSAA titles (most recent 2016), four runner-up finishes.
Coach: Brandon Kaleniecki, second season (42-14-1)
League finish: Second in Michigan Interscholastic Hockey League North.
Best wins: 5-2 over No. 8 Utica Eisenhower in the Regional Final, 2-0 over No. 1 Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, 4-0 and 5-1 over No. 5 Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood, 4-0 over Grandville, 4-1 and 4-1 over Division 2 No. 6 Trenton, 4-2 over Division 2 No. 3 Grosse Pointe South, 3-1 over Division 2 No. 4 Livonia Stevenson.
Players to watch: Brendan West, jr. F (12 goals, 22 assists); Michael Considine sr. F (15 goals, 9 assists); Zach Sprys-Tellner, sr. F (17 goals, 9 assists); Sean Finstrom, sr. G (1.71 goals-against average, 6 shutouts).
Outlook: The Shamrocks ran their championship streak to three last season and have won 10 of their last 11 games as they pursue a fourth straight title. DCC has given up four goals total over four postseason games, and for the season Finstrom and senior Joe Pernecky have combined to give up only 49 goals with nine shutouts. Although DCC graduated an experienced core last spring, this team also is loaded with upperclassmen and balance, as 10 players had at least 14 points entering this week.
Record/rank: 19-10, unranked
Championship history: Division 1 runner-up 2015.
Coach: Joel Breazeale, seventh season (126-61-6).
League finish: Second in Ottawa-Kent Conference Tier I.
Best wins: 3-2 over No. 8 Utica Eisenhower, 4-1 over Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern/Eastern, 3-2 over Division 3 No. 2 Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central.
Players to watch: Trevor Gelfius, jr. F (16 goals, 18 assists); Zach Tykocki, jr. F (18 goals, 14 assists); David Breazeale, jr. D (9 goals, 18 assists); Shane Haggerty, jr. F (15 goals, 6 assists).
Outlook: Grandville has won six Regional titles over Joel Breazeale’s seven seasons as coach, and this one after entering the final stretch .500 before rattling off nine straight wins. After a 5-7 start, it’s been a great comeback for a team with only six seniors, not counting two more in net. The Bulldogs have scored 26 goals over their four tournament games and boast 11 players with at least 10 points, including seven of nine players on their top three lines.
Record/rank: 22-6-1, No. 4
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Coach: Clint Robert, eighth season (147-57-15)
League finish: Second in KLAA Central.
Best wins: 3-2 over No. 5 Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood in the Regional Final, 3-2 over No. 3 Brighton, 3-1 over No. 7 Lake Orion, 3-1 over Division 2 No. 4 Livonia Stevenson, 5-2 over Division 2 No. 5 Livonia Churchill, 4-1 over Division 2 No. 7 Plymouth.
Players to watch: Bret Miller, sr. G (2.06 goals-against average, 2 shutouts); Nick Bonofiglio, sr. F (20 goals, 14 assists); Alex Iafrate, sr. F (9 goals, 16 assists); Nick Williams, jr. D (2 goals, 9 assists).
Outlook: Northville finished second to Brighton in their league, but will play in its first Semifinal since 2004 after making its first Quarterfinal since 2007. Miller made the all-state second team and Williams earned honorable mention last season, giving the Mustangs some headliners defensively to go with an offense featuring seven players with at least 20 points entering the week. Senior Daniel McKee (12 goals) and juniors Danny Scorzo (15) and Devin Laba (13) are also among top scorers, with senior Ty Kilar (four goals, 20 assists) centering the top line and junior Jack Sargent (seven goals, 17 assists) partnering with Williams.
BIRMINGHAM BROTHER RICE
Record/rank: 23-4-1, No. 1
Championship history: Four MHSAA titles (most recent 2015), two runner-up finishes.
Coach: Kenny Chaput, first season (23-4-1)
League finish: First in MIHL North.
Best wins: 6-3 over No. 3 Grosse Pointe South in the Regional Final, 7-2 over No. 7 Plymouth, 7-5 and 7-1 over No. 6 Trenton, 4-0 over No. 2 Hartland, 5-2 over No. 10 Marquette, 5-2 over Division 1 No. 1 Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, 5-1 and 4-3 over Division 1 No. 2 Detroit Catholic Central, 4-3 over Division 1 No. 3 Brighton, 5-0 over Division 1 No. 4 Northville, 7-1 and 5-2 over Division 1 No. 5 Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood, 3-2 over Division 1 No. 6 Rochester, 8-0 over Division 1 No. 9 Detroit U-D Jesuit, 5-2 over Division 3 No. 1 Flint Powers Catholic.
Players to watch: Blake Tosto, sr. F (27 goals, 23 assists); Jack Clement, sr. D (17 goals, 28 assists); Mitchell Shults, sr. F (6 goals, 27 assists); Michael McInerney, sr. F (14 goals, 29 assists).
Outlook: Brother Rice has earned the reputation this season as best team in Michigan regardless of division, with wins over the top six ranked teams in Division 1 in addition to a solid win over Division 2 No. 2 Hartland, and the Grosse Pointe win last week avenged one of the Warriors’ four losses. Shults and Clement earned all-state honorable mention last season but are among many cogs in a loaded lineup – six Brother Rice players had at least 11 goals entering the week, and nine had totaled 13 or more assists.
GRAND RAPIDS FOREST HILLS NORTHERN/EASTERN
Record/rank: 19-8-2, unranked
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Coach: Tom Bissett, sixth season (88-68-11)
League finish: Second in O-K Conference Tier 2.
Best wins: 4-1 (Pre-Regional) and 7-2 over No. 9 Grand Rapids Christian, 3-1 over No. 6 Trenton, 3-2 over Division 1 No. 8 Utica Eisenhower.
Players to watch: Nathan Nickelson, jr. F (24 goals, 25 assists); Wyatt Radakovitz, sr. F (26 goals, 33 assists); Ian Famulak, jr. F (16 goals, 29 assists); Joel Brandinger, jr. F (13 goals, 27 assists).
Outlook: Northern/Eastern is back in the Semifinals for the second straight season led by two high-scoring lines but also an offensively potent defense; junior Josh Boverhof had 10 goals and 31 assists as part of the top pair entering the week. Radakovitz made the all-state second team last season after earning honorable mention as a sophomore, and Famulak and Nickelson also were offensive leaders a year ago. Northern/Eastern is 7-0-1 after a midseason stretch with four losses over six games.
Record/rank: 25-2-1, No. 2
Championship history: Division 2 runner-up 2013 and 2014.
Coach: Rick Gadwa, sixth season (121-42-9)
League finish: First in KLAA West, Lakes Conference and overall.
Best wins: 3-0 (Quarterfinal) and 3-0 over No. 4 Livonia Stevenson, 5-3 over No. 5 Livonia Churchill, 4-2 over No. 7 Plymouth, 6-5 over No. 9 Grand Rapids Christian, 3-2 over Division 1 No. 1 Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, 4-2 over Division 1 No. 2 Detroit Catholic Central, 3-2 over Division 1 No. 3 Brighton, 3-0 over Division 1 No. 9 Detroit U-D Jesuit.
Players to watch: Josh Albring, jr. F (22 goals, 50 assists); Jed Pietila, sr. F (19 goals, 34 assists); Jacob Behnke, jr. F (22 goals, 20 assists); Blake Heier, sr. F (21 goals, 17 assists).
Outlook: Like Brother Rice, Hartland also has wins over the top three ranked teams from Division 1, and its only in-state loss was to the Warriors. The Eagles haven’t given up a goal during the postseason – junior goaltender Andrew Heuwagen had eight shutouts total this winter heading into the week. Senior Zach Sexton was an all-state defenseman as a sophomore, and Albring made the all-state first team last season. Sophomore wing Joey Larson adds more firepower with 15 goals and 10 assists after the Regional round.
Record/rank: 22-5-1, unranked
Championship history: Division 2 runner-up 2006.
Coach: Paul Fassbender, first season (22-5-1)
League finish: First in Metro League West and Southeastern Conference Red.
Best wins: 5-4 over No. 5 Livonia Churchill in the Quarterfinal, 6-2 over Division 1 No. 10 Troy.
Players to watch: Brendan Murphy, soph. D (25 goals, 25 assists); Mikhail Lozovyy, soph. F (15 goals, 25 assists); Logan Dejanovich, soph. F (15 goals, 20 assists); Collin Clark, soph. F (15 goals, 20 assists).
Outlook: Saline may not have a list of ranked opponents as long as the other three semifinalists, but it proved it belonged with the Quarterfinal win and has to be scary to the rest of Division 1 with no seniors – but five sophomores – among its top seven scorers this season. In fact, the team has only three seniors: two defensemen and a goalie. Fassbender formerly served as coach at Plymouth, Ann Arbor Pioneer and with the Eastern Michigan University club team.
Record/rank: 22-6-1, No. 3
Championship history: Six MHSAA titles (most recent 2008), four runner-up finishes.
Coach: Dan Giachino, second season (37-14-4)
League finish: First in Great Lakes Hockey Conference.
Best wins: 2-1 (Pre-Regional) and 5-2 over No. 4 Hancock, 4-0 (Regional Final), 3-2 and 7-1 over No. 8 Houghton, 3-0 and 6-1 over Division 2 No. 10 Marquette, 4-1 over Division 1 No. 3 Brighton, 7-2 and 2-1 over Division 1 No. 9 Detroit U-D Jesuit, 2-1 over Division 1 No. 6 Rochester.
Players to watch: Rory Anderson, sr. F (24 goals, 34 assists); Trevor Johnson, sr. D (5 goals, 22 assists); Brent Loukus, soph. F (29 goals, 29 assists); Ed Beiring, sr. F (17 goals, 20 assists).
Outlook: After opening 0-4 with doubleheader sweeps by reigning Division 3 champion Hancock and Division 1 No. 5 Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood, Calumet went on a tear proving it can play with teams in any division. The Copper Kings not only came back to beat Hancock twice but also three of the top 10 in Division 1. Anderson and Johnson both were first-team all-staters last season, and Loukus is an exciting sophomore; they are three of seven players who had at least 20 points entering the week.
DEARBORN DIVINE CHILD
Record/rank: 12-15-2, unranked
Championship history: Division 3 champion 2002, runner-up 2001.
Coach: Dominic Scala, second season (21-31-3)
League finish: Fourth in Metro League East.
Best wins: 5-1 over Division 2 No. 5 Livonia Churchill, 4-3 over Division 2 No. 3 Grosse Pointe South.
Players to watch: Vincenzo DiDomenico, sr. F (9 goals, 13 assists); Jose Sanchez, sr. F (14 goals, 10 assists); Ian Juszczyk, jr. F (15 goals, 16 assists); Josh Lucas, sr. G (2.31 goals-against average, 1 shutout).
Outlook: Divine Child is one of the surprises of the tournament, avenging an earlier loss to Chelsea by downing the 2016 semifinalist 4-3 in this week’s Quarterfinal. The Falcons have scored 19 goals over four playoff games, more than a quarter of their goals for this entire season. Scala, in his second as head coach, was an assistant four seasons and formerly a defenseman at Detroit Catholic Central during its 2005 Division 1 title run.
FLINT POWERS CATHOLIC
Record/rank: 28-1, No. 1
Championship history: Seven runner-up finishes (most recent 2010).
Coach: Travis Perry, 11th season (232-64-13)
League finish: First in Saginaw Valley League.
Best wins: 3-2 OT (Quarterfinal) and 2-1 over No. 2 Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central, 5-1 over Dearborn Divine Child, 5-0 (Pre-Regional) and 4-2 over No. 9 Saginaw Heritage, 4-3 over Division 1 No. 1 Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, 2-0 over Division 1 No. 7 Lake Orion, 4-0 over Division 1 No. 9 Detroit U-D Jesuit, 2-0 over Division 2 No. 4 Livonia Stevenson.
Players to watch: Brendan Smith, sr. F (35 goals, 39 assists); Jake Polakowski, sr. D (2 goals, 38 assists); Conor Witherspoon, sr. F (31 goals, 48 assists); Mason Weiss, soph. F (9 goals, 27 assists).
Outlook: The story of Powers’ season has been if this is the team to finally earn the program its first MHSAA championship. Witherspoon was an all-state honorable mention last winter as the team didn’t win a Regional title for the only time over the last decade; he and the Chargers have stormed back, and he and Smith lead an offense that’s played with the best with six players scoring at least 10 goals entering the week and 12 tallying at least 10 assists. Sophomore goalie Parker Rey had seven shutouts in nine games entering this week, and total the team has given up only 27 goals.
Record/rank: 18-9-1, No. 5
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Coach: Craig Staskowski, first season (18-9-1)
League finish: First in MIHL South.
Best wins: 4-1 over Division 2 No. 1 Birmingham Brother Rice, 2-0 over Division 1 No. 5 Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood, 3-2 over Division 1 No. 8 Utica Eisenhower, 6-5 and 3-1 over Division 1 No. 9 Detroit U-D Jesuit, 2-1 over Dearborn Divine Child.
Players to watch: Greg Pine, sr. F (22 goals, 25 assists); Thomas Hernandez, sr. F (19 goals, 21 assists); Matthew Pelto, sr. F (12 goals, 17 assists); Austin Scott, sr. F (8 goals, 12 assists).
Outlook: Staskowski has led DeLaSalle to its second Semifinals in four seasons after a successful five-season run coaching Rochester and stops as well at Utica and with Warren Sterling United. DeLaSalle has cruised through the playoffs with three shutouts over unranked teams, but showed it can play with the best as well with significant wins over teams from Divisions 1 and 2. Ten players had at least 10 points entering the week, and there’s a nice blend of seniors and players who should be back next winter. While the top two lines are senior-heavy, there are only two among the top six defensemen and starting goalie.
PHOTO: Northville's Alex Iafrate (4) and Danny Scorzo (20) battle for the puck during a December win over Livonia Stevenson. (Click for more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
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.)