Six teams skate into the United Center on Sunday, March 19, for the final three games of the 2022-23 Illinois High School Hockey Season, The No. 1-ranked teams in the Red Division, Combined Division and Girls are dominant forces that have cruised along since last September, crushing opponent after opponent after opponent.
But the opponents for the aforementioned teams are each talented, eager, determined and absolutely driven to prove that, hey, maybe they carry an underdog label, but their slapshots can score, too, and each of them – York, Chicago North and Loyola, respectively – are focused on winning state, not settling for second place.
Barrington’s offensive firepower is led by Nicole Gorbatenko, arguably one of the best players in the state this season.
But any team that just focuses on stopping her will be blitzed by numerous other skilled, high-level players, including four Fillies who also skate for the Chicago Mission 16U team that won state and then went on to play in the USA Hockey Central District Tier I Kohlman Cup in Romeoville.
“Barrington is really good, especially on offense. We know Barrington will get opportunities; we just have to limit their opportunities,” said Loyola head coach D.J. LaVarre. “You can’t just focus on Nicole. They also have Ella Pukala, Mia Winterkorn and Nicole’s sister, Rachel.
“Stopping one isn’t the key; stopping the team is the key.”
The two teams have battled twice when the Fillies brought their whole roster, and Barrington won both, including 3-1 on Feb. 12, in the Metro Girls Hockey League Scholastic Division Championship.
“Barrington is deep; we know that. We just have to keep it close because they can light it up at any point,” LaVarre said.
Barrington crushed No. 5-seed New Trier, 6-1, in the semifinals, while No. 3 Loyola upended No. 2 Fenwick, 4-2, in the other semifinal.
The Ramblers went 11-7-4 in Metro Girls, including the tiering round and the regular season.
“We don’t rely on one player. We need to play good position hockey; that’s how we got here,” LaVarre said. “We need good defensive play, timely goals and solid goaltending.”
Defensive keys will be the play of Ramblers Maddie Quinn and Bella Goetz, among others.
The Ramblers’ offense is led by Lauren Smith, Kelly Morgan and Julia Carrigan.
Pearl Steinhouse is Loyola’s top goalie.
Loyola senior goalie Shira Wein was named to the Blackhawk Alumni Association Girl’s High School All-Star Team, chosen for her on-ice skill, passion for the game, and her dedication and leadership skills both on and off the ice.
PREP ran roughshod through the IHSHL North-Central Division, finishing 25-0-3 in the Champions League and then capturing the playoff title, sweeping the best-of-3 series from Evanston.
They are explosive on offense with Nicholas Lamberg leading the league in scoring (28 goals, 26 assists in 28 games played). PREP has two others among North-Central’s top six scorers: William Behls (18 goals, 29 assists) and Matthew Melachrinakis (15, 24).
PREP has two more who finished among the league’s top 25 scorers.
“PREP obviously is a really good team. They have everything: depth, speed, physical play and more,” said first-year Chicago North head coach Kevin Doell. “Still, everyone with Chicago North is excited. We have a gameplan and know we must stick to it. Our game is fast-paced, pressure hockey, getting pucks to the net, crashing and banging the net.”
“I think one of the big things for us is, having them believe in themselves. We have worked hard to create that culture where they’re working hard, but still having fun. We have let them hold each other accountable, making sure they are moving forward and getting better.”
Chicago North is a mix of players from Lane Tech, Taft, Northside Prep, Lakeview, Von Steuben, Lycée Français, Amundsen and DePaul Prep. They have been one of the hottest teams of late, winning 9 of their last 11 games.
But those two losses were against PREP.
“When we’ve had success, it’s when everyone plays, everyone contributes. We’re hot at the right time,” Doell said.
No. 6 Chicago North anchors around goalie Diego Condie Espinosa, with strong support from defenseman Auggie Watts. Emmett Heneghan is the team’s top forward.
PREP has outscored its three state tournament foes (Chicago Central, Glenbard and Libertyville) 11-1.
The Trevians (57-6-2) have faced York (32-23-0) three times this season and New Trier Green stands a perfect 3-0. But none have been blowouts. New Trier Green won 3-2, 3-1 and 5-3.
“It’s awesome that we got to the state championship game,” said New Trier head coach Adam Cheris, who watched his Trevians stop Stevenson 4-2 in the semifinals. “I had no idea it would feel this exhilarating after we won semifinals.”
The Trevians are making their 20th appearance in the state championship game.
“This is a really tightly-bonded team, since day one – and that was my mission all season, to get them to be a band of brothers, make the sacrifices with each other and have this end goal in sight: to be playing in the state championship game.”
The Trevians feature three forwards who finished in the top 10 goal-scorers in the Scholastic Hockey League regular season. Landon Douthit had 16 goals, 5 assists in 26 games played. Tyler Smith had 15 goals, 13 assists; and Aleks Cheris finished with 13, 11.
And then there’s forward Butler Chessen, who missed three months of the season, but is back and is simply an elite player who must be stopped. Every shift is a strong scoring chance for Chessen.
The Trevians carry the experience and depth advantage, as Green plays all four lines – and all contribute, including two high-powered scoring lines that, without question, can put the puck in the net.
“We know how good they are. We’ve seen what they’ve done to other teams. We know they’re very talented. If we don’t play our A+ game, we aren’t winning this game; that’s a fact. But, if we play New Trier Green hockey and dominate in all three zones, then we’ll be able to prevail,” Cheris said.
York, playing in its first-ever state championship game, is convinced it can slay the dragon that is New Trier Green. The Dukes know they must not steer away from what they have been doing all year, said head coach Matt Boeing. “It’s just another hockey game for us and we’ve been successful in a lot of these grind-it-out games.”
The Dukes silenced perennial power Loyola Gold 2-0 in the semifinal with goals from Frank Nicosia II and Frank Rosa – and perfect goaltending from Adam Kaczmarek (24 saves).
“They’ve built this bond that they’ll remember for a lifetime. They’re not playing for themselves; they’re playing for the guy next to them and the letter on the front of the jersey,” said Boeing, in his 10th season with the York program.
The underdog label is fine with York. In fact, “it feeds us; it definitely puts a chip on our shoulder,” Boeing said. “We know they have the work ethic and we know they want it. We’ve met adversity this year, and we’ve found a way to work around it. We’re trying to prove everybody wrong.”
York, with 12 players who played last year for the school’s JV team, also toppled Deerfield (3-1) and Saint Ignatius (5-1) in the state tournament. The Dukes are hot, period. They finished the SHL regular season with 8 wins in their last 10 games, including two W’s during that stretch over Loyola Gold, Glenbrook North and Glenbrook South.
New Trier Green will win, 3-1, with forward Kitchel Snow assisting on 2 goals, including the game-winner.
Rachel Gorbatenko will score the game-winning goal, leading Barrington to a 4-2 victory.
All-State goalie Michael Delea will be perfect, winning MVP honors for leading PREP to its first state championship, 3-0.